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Jury Awards $11 Million for Internet Defamation 612

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the lawyers-making-everyone's-life-better dept.
dptalia writes "A woman in Florida has been awarded $11.3 million dollars in a defamation case. Apparently the defendant was unhappy with the plaintiff's referral service and posted complaints all over the internet. In a chilling slap at free speech, the jury decided that not only was this illegal, but that it was worth over $11 million. The defendant can't pay the judgement — she can't even pay for an attorney. The plaintiff says she doesn't care, but sued for the principle of the thing."
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Jury Awards $11 Million for Internet Defamation

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  • Confusing To Me (Score:4, Interesting)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:17PM (#16395453) Journal
    What's always been confusing to me is what needs to be true in publishing. Books have always seemed to be protected from people 'publishing whatever they want.' But the more I think about it, the more I realize that politicians usually have to put up with books containing allegations that aren't entirely provable. So, for the most part, I think that books are safe from large postings of defamation.

    The same can be said about magazines & newspapers (usually) though--with the National Enquirer and tabloids--it certainly does have examples of blatant slander.

    But anyone can say anything on the internet and get away with it--or so I thought. Considering what I read online, I'm certainly surprised there aren't more cases like this.

    It seems the more volatile the medium is, the more 'free' you are to do whatever you want.

    I haven't read the actual comments online that this woman posted but I would suggest that the defendant appeal to a higher court on the grounds of free speech and try to get her story out through the media. I mean, it looks like she's boned either way so she might as well appeal and represent herself if she has to. I'm pretty certain that this could be dismissed in a higher court. After all, it sounds like she was dissatisfied with the person's service so she is more than qualified to comment on the woman's business--unless she was telling explicit lies.
  • by Cyrom (984413) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:20PM (#16395537)
    Sounds like i will have to be a little more carefull with my feedback on Amazon and Ebay.
  • by AdamKG (1004604) <slashdot@adamgoma a . c om> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:27PM (#16395669) Homepage
    It's not a slap a free speech, unless you think people should be able to make unfounded accusations and damage an innocent person's reputation.
    That's exactly what I think.

    There is no reason my free speech rights have to pay the price for society being so gullible. Let people slander to their heart's content and maybe society will learn a little skepticism.
  • by ahodgson (74077) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:33PM (#16395799)
    Claiming that you did business with someone and that they ripped you off is not "expressing your opinion", it is deliberately trying to hurt someone's livelihood. Civil court is the proper place to defend oneself against that sort of attack. In the US, if you're telling the truth, you can certainly say it, but you may have to defend yourself in court.

    Although the reward is certainly far in excess of any real damage that could have been done, the principle is sound. If you mouth off about someone, you had better make sure you can prove you're telling the truth and be prepared to do so in a court of law.

    It could be worse. In many other countries (including my own) you can be successfully sued for defaming someone even if you can prove that what you said is the truth. Now that stifles free speech.
  • by mmell (832646) <mmell@hotmail.com> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:35PM (#16395851)
    Uh, you might want to actually read TFA - this case is no diffent than if Ms. Bock had taken out newspaper or television advertisements in which she defamed Ms. Scheff as a "crook", a "con artist" and a "fraud".

    Just because it's free to post information on the intranet doesn't make it any different from any other publishing medium - were this a newspaper or television related case, I'm sure most /.'ers would agree that the law is clear; to publicly accuse someone of a crime, you'd better have a little thing called proof first. Print and television journalists know this. Nothing in the US Constitution/Bill of Rights guarantees anybody the right to make defamatory or libelous statements anywhere in public - when you speak of another, either be nice or have the goods to back up your statements.

    As for Ms. Bock's assertion that "nobody heard my side of the case" - obviously not true, as it's plainly evident that some number of web-surfers did hear her case. If she wanted to have her case heard in court she should probably have considered showing up in court. I'm sure that the civil trial wasn't held in secret. Perhaps next time, Ms. Bock will deign to favor the court with her presence when she is being sued.

    If 'dptalia' insists on posting this article with commentary that indicates he sympathizes with Ms. Bock, that's certainly a constitutionally protected right. ScuttleMonkey's lack of editorial judgement in permitting the article to be posted as is, while also constitutionally protected is nonetheless unimpressive (but not unexpected).

    IANAL, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!

  • by computational super (740265) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:42PM (#16395973)

    Anybody still beleive that Americans don't need anonymous internet options like Freenet [sourceforge.net]? (Assuming, that is, that they EVER get the thing to work).

  • by Old Man Kensey (5209) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @02:09PM (#16396527) Homepage
    First, this lady asks us to believe that she completely forgot about a court date. She acknowledged that she knew it was "approaching", which means she darn well ought to have had at least a rough idea of when she would need to appear and definitely ought to have been aware that she had a legal responsibility to keep track of the proceedings. Second, Katrina hit in August 2005. This verdict was last month, over a year later, and with no defense present you can bet the verdict was rendered on the same day the trial was scheduled. A year is plenty of time to have changed your address, informed people, had your mail forwarded, and checked on "oh by the way, do we have a court date set yet on this legal proceeding I'm involved in?"

    Even if she found out too late to appear in person, I've never heard of a court that won't let you appear in writing. Even a simple letter to the court explaining your side is better than just blowing the whole thing off.

    To me this looks like the lady knew she was going to (and deserved to) lose, and tried to take an easy out when a hurricane forced her to relocate. She got hit with a bigger judgement than I would have expected, but I can't say I feel too much sympathy for her even so. The jury was probably punishing her for wasting their time as much as anything else.

  • by sadler121 (735320) <msadler@gmail.com> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @02:27PM (#16396903) Homepage
    mod me redundant, but I will NEVER install a program on my computer that will possably lead to child pornography getting on my computer. Give me an option to restrict what is on my hard drive, and then I will use FreeNet.

    I know the philosophical argument for FreeNet, but in modern American politics that does not matter one wit. If you are found with child pornography on your computer you mine as well kill yourself because you will be a marked person for the rest of your life, and NEVER be able to make anything of your life.
  • by kfg (145172) * on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @02:53PM (#16397463)
    You seem to have missed that part.

    No I didn't. That's the cause of a default judgement. I didn't even address that particular issue because it wasn't relevant to the point.

    No matter if she was right or not, she gave the middle finger to the judicial system and they broke it off for her.

    She was in disaster survivor housing in Texas when the summons was returned from her effectively nonexistant house in Louisiana. The case was heard in Florida. She had already spent what little money she had attempting to answer the claim. Even if she had known the trial date she had no means to travel to Florida to answer the complaint, let alone the means to do so effectively.

    She did not "give her finger" to the judicial system, she didn't have the power to do so.

    Was the default judgement legally sound? Under the circumstances, given the knowledge available to the judge, yes. He really had no option.

    Did the jury find the defendent guilty of libel, the issue to which I responded? No, they did not. Nobody did.

    She was found liable by default. There was no opinion on the validity of the claim.

    KFG
  • by sd_diamond (839492) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @03:12PM (#16397845) Homepage

    "Lawers are like nuclear weapons. They have theirs, so I gotta have mine. But as soon as you use them, they fuck everything up."

    --Larry the Liquidator,
    Other People's Money
  • by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @03:18PM (#16397965) Homepage
    Oh god, here we go again. A) how do you know the lawyer won anything? If the plaintiff's attorney was working on contingency they don't get a damn thing. B) Do you have any evidence that the defendant now has to go into bankruptcy? People have judgments against them all the time that they can't afford to pay, if they don't have the assets then generally the plaintiff won't go after them, because then they WILL have to go into bankruptcy and the plaintiff will not only not collect but will have to go to the extra expense of seeking an attachment of assets. C) This woman didn't defend herself, which was foolish. If someone's suing you you make it a point of finding out the details; if only one side is willing to come to court, guess who's going to win? D) I work in the legal field in south Florida; Broward county has a perfectly good legal aid service who exists precisely for these types of situations, she should have gone to them. She can even go to them now and they might help her with the appeal. Hell, if she had showed up in court she could have defended herself, judges are obligated to cut pro se litigants a lot of slack because they don't have legal training, but they're supposed to be neutral arbiters so they can't just take over one side's duties. E) Lawyers generally do what their clients tell them; I guarantee you the lawyer didn't see this woman's online postings and run to the plaintiff and offer his services; the plaintiff undoubtedly came to the lawyer instead. F) If someone is libeling you online and adversely affecting your business, what is your recourse going to be if not the legal system? Maybe, just maybe, the judgment was fair. What, exactly, is your problem SPECIFICALLY with the whole process? That the lawyer got paid for doing their job? The implication seems to be that there was a moral lapse on the part of the plaintiff's lawyer; what was it? The only person who I think didn't act properly was defendant's lawyer, but lawyers can't abandon their clients mid-litigation without permission from the judge and a show of cause, so even in that case they might have had a legitimate reason to be released.
  • by kfg (145172) * on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @03:48PM (#16398443)
    None of which has any bearing on whether or not she actually libeled the plaintiff, the only issue to which I responded in my original post.

    But if those damned poor people weren't guilty they wouldn't be poor, now would they? There's actually a slang legal term for people in her position. That term is "judgement proof."

    If they don't have the means to respond, they don't have the means to pay either.

    Plaintif claims a "moral" victory, but there has been no finding that she was libeled. She has only been found to have more available resources to spread around her home court against a visiting team; who doesn't have money to put gas in the bus. A default "moral" victory.

    And for puroposes of bias I will point out that I am inclined to favor the work done by the plainiff. Anyone who reads my posts on some sort of regular basis will know that children's rights are one of my "issues" and I am not keen on the current in loco parentis powers of the state.

    Anyone who takes a stand for the rights of children in their own right is going to draw some pretty heavy fire; as I have in this very forum.

    I am socially unacceptable to many people because of my views. I can live with that. If, however, I choose to view your responses to me as libelous and sued you here in the NY court system that would make me an asshole, something I try, admitedly not always successfually, to avoid.

    If you chose not to abandon your life in Florida to spend weeks, perhaps years, of crippling legal expenses here in NY, that is what I would expect, and claiming a "moral" victory against you would just make me a fucking asshole.

    KFG
  • by forgetmenot (467513) <atsjewell AT onebox DOT com> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @04:16PM (#16398837) Homepage
    It's time to put this fucking McDonald's hot coffee case to rest: It's been held up to be a shining beacon of the spurious nature of litigation in America when in FACT it is NOT. 3rd degree burns is not spurious!
    - The plaintiff suffered 3rd degree burns over parts of her legs that required SKIN GRAFTS.
    - The plaintiff only sued because she couldn't afford the cost of prolonged hospitalization she required and McDonald's refused to assist.
    - McDonald's executives testified they KNEW their coffee was hot enough to cause 3rd degree burns (burn occur over 130 degree, McDonalds was brewing their coffee as high as 205).
    - McDonald's ignored advice to post warnings about the possibility of burns as well has ignore the warnings given to fast food industry as a whole that they were brewing their coffee too hot.
    - The evidence showed McDonald's coffee was consistently 20 degrees hotter than the industry average.

    The JUDGE AND JURY found McDonald's behaviour reckless, callous, and WILLFUL.

    Furthermore... it's very easy for an ignoramous like yourself to be all righteous and disdainful when your livelihood is not at risk. People are mean to you at work? Boo fucking hoo! Are they depriving you of your ability to earn a living? Apparently not, so you're comparing apples to fridge magnets. Perhaps you find is amusing to see another wrongfully deprived of an income? How about if that person has a family to feed? Still funny? How about if your children are being picked on because of accusations made against you? Funnier still I bet, right? HA HA HA!

    Libel is a crime. Period. It causes pain and anguish and loss of income. It is "assault". You're not so dimwitted and shallow to condone smacking someone upside the head with a bat are you? If so, post your address, you sociapathic fuck.
  • by RexRhino (769423) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @04:39PM (#16399275)
    No, the news is that even casual speech on web forums is now considered to be the same as a newspaper article, or television advertisment.

    While libel laws have always been around, the bar on what sort of speech is considered libel has been dramaticly lowered. Before, libel would have to be some outright slanderous speech made is a very public manner, and there was an extremly high bar for the person making the claim of libel... now, all you have to do is say something that pisses off a person with a lawyer, and you are commiting libel.

    You are using the word "libel" to describe two completly different forms of behavior. It is like if I say "Terrorism has always recieved the death penalty, and that is why we need the death penalty for people who commit terroristic acts of jaywalking and spitting on the sidewalk". While it is true that libel has always been against the law, this is so stretching the definition of libel that I fail to see how anyone couldn't sue anyone else for saying something they don't like.
  • by triffid_98 (899609) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @05:28PM (#16400103)
    The problem isn't lawyers per se. The problem is the increasingly vast number of laws on the books and how judges choose to interpret them. Twenty years ago a judge would have laughed you out of court if you say, tried to sue a manufacturer of toasters because they weren't clearly labeled as 'not intended for use underwater'.

    Lawyers (and some plaintiffs) merely take advantage of the situation. And as a result, we get fun little brochures in everything we buy clearly outlining things a village idiot aught to be able to figure out.

    WARNING: A risk of fire and electrical shock exists in all electrical appliances and may cause personal injury or death
    Do not use appliance except as intended.
    Do not place on or near hot gas or electric burner, or in a heated oven.
    Do not place any part of this toaster under water or other liquid.
    Unplug from outlet when not in use.
    Unplug before cleaning.
    Do not insert over-sized foods, metal foil packages, or metal utensils into the toaster.
    Do not immerse in water
    Do not physically hold down the toast lever.
    and that's just the digest version...

    Im not sure how I feel about jumping on the 'lets bash lawyers cause they are ruining America' bandwagon. Lets remember that lawyers are in abundance because of the demand. If America (yes, im American, so dont go off on a euro vs us tangent) wasnt so damn messed up, we wouldnt have as many law firms as gas stations.

"And do you think (fop that I am) that I could be the Scarlet Pumpernickel?" -- Looney Tunes, The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950, Chuck Jones)

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