Communications and Media

Defamation Lawsuits Abound

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A Manhattan lawyer has sued two former girlfriends for disparaging remarks they made about him online. The comments, one of which called the lawyer a cheating "scum," appeared on the tell-all website Liarscheatersrus.com.

The interesting part is the lawyer does not dispute many of the comments. Despite this he's suing the women not for defamation, but for hurting his business. This shows that online comments may give rise to lawsuits not just for defamation or even invasion of privacy, but also for business claims like trade disparagement or interference with contractual relations. These claims may be easier or harder to prove, or support bigger or different forms of damages. It's something to keep in mind before venting - even truthfully - against a person, product or company online.

Original Article

 
  • 2010 has seen an outbreak of defamation lawsuits, primarily spurred on by widespread use of the internet
  • The First Amendment to the US Constitution offers some protection against defamation lawsuits
  • Some states have special laws designed to stop some defamation lawsuits, and a federal law is in the works
  • Know when expressing your opinions may cross the line

 

With the widespread use of the internet has come an outbreak of defamation lawsuits. When you can voice your opinion and reach millions of people almost instantly, there's a very real possibility you may upset someone.

Outbreak

A trend in the outbreak of defamation lawsuits involves ordinary people like you and me who voice our opinions online about a product or service we've bought or used and aren't happy with.

Ebay

Michael Steadman was the winning bidder on a time clock sold by Elliot Miller on eBay. When he got the clock, he claims it didn't work as promised on the eBay ad and wasn't the same clock in the ad.

Miller eventually, but reluctantly, refunded Steadman's money. In the meantime, Steadman left negative "feedback" on Miller for all eBayers to see: "Bad seller; he has the ethics of a used car salesman." Miller filed a defamation lawsuit for $15,000, claiming the feedback ruined his perfect eBay rating and his "commercial reputation" as an eBayer.

Hollywood

Joshua Newton wrote, directed, and produced a 2009 movie called "Iron Cross." To advertise the film and improve its chances of winning an Oscar, Newton invested $400,000 in a promotional blitz in Variety*, an entertainment news icon. A freelance writer, Robert Koehler, wrote a review of the film and it was published by Variety online. The review wasn't very flattering.

In March 2010, Newton filed a lawsuit against Variety claiming breach of contact, negligence, and unfair business practices by Variety, all of which defamed the film.

Michigan

Justin Kurtz became upset when T&J Towing towed his car from his apartment complex parking lot. There's some debate, but apparently Kurtz's parking permit wasn't properly displayed. After paying $118 to get his car back, he started a Facebook page called Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.

Hundreds of people joined the page, but not T&J. Instead it filed a $750,000 defamation suit claiming Kurtz and his site were costing it business and damaging its reputation.

Defamation and Protections

Stripped of legalese, defamation is when someone says or tells another person something untrue about you and it hurts your reputation or makes other people unwilling to deal with you. The false statement may be spoken (this is called "slander"), or it may be in writing (called "libel').

Sometimes what you say or write is protected and the person claiming he was injured by your words can't sue you for defamation. For example, the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects your right to express your opinion about someone or something. But, it can't be a false fact. For instance, saying "That's the worst book I've ever read," is an opinion. Saying, "The author plagiarized the book," if untrue, is a false statement of fact that may lead to a defamation lawsuit.

SLAPP laws give some protection, too. It stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These laws are designed to stop people from filing lawsuits to silence criticisms and unfavorable opinions by everyday citizens. If a court finds someone filed a lawsuit in violation of the SLAPP law, that person will be ordered to pay the other party's legal costs and attorney's fees in defending the suit.

Not all states have SLAPP laws, and they're usually different in the states that do have them. There's no federal SLAPP law, but as of June 2010, there's one in the works.

Unfortunately for eBayer Steadman and car owner Kurtz, SLAPP laws are of no help. Florida's SLAPP laws apply only when the state or local government or a homeowner's association is involved in the case. And Michigan doesn't have a SLAPP law.

Steadman and Kurtz likely will have to show they were expressing an opinion or prove their statements didn't in fact cause any injuries to win in the defamation suits filed against them.

Variety, on the other hand, shows just how California's SLAPP laws are supposed to work. In May 2010, the lawsuit was thrown out of court and Newton was ordered to pay Variety's legal fees in defending the lawsuit.

Before you speak your mind online or elsewhere, keep in mind that what you say may have legal consequences. Avoid saying anything that may be considered a factual statement. Keep it an opinion, and maybe even add in the phrase, "This is my opinion." If you have something factual to say, have proof to back it up. Truth is always a defense to a defamation suit.

*Variety is owned by Reed Business Information (RBI), a division of Lawyers.com parent company Reed Elsevier, Inc.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • A neighbor wrote a letter to a local agency complaining about the condition of my yard and house. Is that defamation?
  • Does our state have a SLAPP law? What does it cover?
  • Can I be sued for writing a letter to the editor of a local paper about what I believe are corrupt policies and politicians in our local government?
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