Doctor Loses Defamation Case Over Online Remarks–McKee v. Laurion

5 02 2013

By Eric Goldman

McKee v. Laurion, A11-1154 (Minn. Jan. 30, 2013)

Dr. McKee treated Kenneth Laurion. Unhappy with those interactions, Kenneth’s son Dennis critiqued Dr. McKee on various doctor review websites. Dr. McKee sued Dennis for defamation (and related claims) based on 11 different statements. The district court granted summary judgment to Dennis on all counts, but the appellate court revived the lawsuit on 6 statements.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the appellate court on those 6 statements, concluding that Dennis isn’t liable for any of the statements.

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Teachers fight online slams

28 01 2013

Cyber-bullying and defamation

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Calling Someone a “Terrorist” Online Is Non-Actionable Opinion–LeBlanc v. Skinner

16 12 2012

By Eric Goldman

LeBlanc v. Skinner, 2012 WL 6176900 (N.Y.A.D. Dec. 12, 2012)

The plaintiff accuses the defendants of posting the following statements at blogs and newspaper websites:

* “We all know who was behind the Horse Head . . . there is only one man around town dumb enough, violent enough and with a vendetta to do that . . . Dave LeBlanc . . . I hope all this negative publicity on him destroys his business.”
* “Dave LeBlanc is a terrorist”
* “Who was the one who threw the horse head in Gail’s pool . . . check it out: . . . wawayandafirstblogspot.com.”

There is even more intrigue as the co-defendants are pointing fingers at each other. Aunt and uncle accuse their nephew of making the posts; the nephew claims he was the aunt/uncle’s agent and they directed him to make the posts. This implicates some potentially interesting 47 USC 230 issues that aren’t explored (compare this 2008 case where a wife typed her husband’s comments).

The court says the “terrorist” epithet was “rhetorical hyperbole.” The court continues:

This conclusion is especially apt in the digital age, where it has been commented that readers give less credence to allegedly defamatory Internet communications than they would to statements made in other milieus.

Either way, there is now an impressive body of precedent holding that people don’t interpret online name-calling literally. See, e.g., Seldon v. Compass Restaurant, Chaker v. Mateo, Sandals v. Google (cited here), DiMeo v. Max, Finkel v. Dauber and others. I wish this meant that plaintiffs will think twice about suing over online name-calling, but I doubt it.

Still, the news isn’t all good for the defendants. The court says it’s defamatory per se to assert that someone put a severed horse head in someone’s pool, so it reserves dismissal of that claim.

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Business School Professors May Be Liable for Defamatory Blog Post–ZAGG v. Catanach

1 10 2012

By Eric Goldman

ZAGG, Inc. v. Catanach, 2012 WL 4462813 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 27, 2012)

Anthony H. Catanach Jr. and J. Edward Ketz are business school professors, Canatach at Villanova’s business school and Ketz at Penn State’s business school. Together, they co-blog at the “Grumpy Old Accountants” blog. With a curmudgeonly name like that, it seems almost inevitable that they’ll have to rename the blog “Grumpy Old Defendants.”

The lawsuit involves a blog post entitled “Don’t Gag on Zagg.” They appear to have removed the post, but it was fairly widely distributed and discussed, and you can see the intro here. The court uses the passive voice in characterizing the post’s author, so I couldn’t tell if it was co-authored or only one of the co-bloggers wrote the post. As I explain in my Co-Blogging Law article, if only one of the co-bloggers wrote it, the other should be able to claim a 47 USC 230 defense for the other blogger’s post.

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This Is One of the Top Ten Best Blog Posts Ever Written about Online Defamation

18 09 2012

Although we have confidence in the quality of our work, the headline above might be viewed by some as mere hyperbole or rhetorical exaggeration. And that is the case with most top ten lists, at least those that are based on consumer reviews, a court recently ruled. In Seaton v. TripAdvisor, LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118584 (E.D. Tenn. August 22, 2012), the district court concluded that 2011 Trip Advisor “Dirtiest Hotels” ranking constituted hyperbolic opinion and rhetorical exaggeration, and thus was not actionable under Tennessee defamation law.

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Another Case Says No Liability for Linking to Allegedly Defamatory Content, Plus a Recap (Guest Blog Post)

10 09 2012

Vazquez v. Buhl, 2012 WL 3641581 (Conn. Super. July 17, 2012)

In Vazquez v. Buhl, the plaintiff sued Teri Buhl, a financial reporter, for posting allegedly defamatory statements on her website. He also sued NBCUniversal for publishing an article on CNBC.com called “The Sex and Money Scandal Rocking Hedge Fund Land.” The CNBC.com article referred to Buhl as a “veteran financial reporter” who “knows her way around the Connecticut hedge fund beat” and provided a link to her webiste, adding “I don’t want to steal Buhl’s thunder, so click on her report for the big reveal.” The complaint alleged that NBCUniversal “published, distributed, endorsed and promoted Buhl’s defamatory statement by validating Buhl’s credibility.”

NBCUniversal filed a motion to strike the Complaint based on (Section 230 , and Judge David R. Tobin of the Superior Court of Connecticut granted the motion. The court focused its analysis on whether NBCUniversal was a “content provider” with respect to Buhl’s statements, citing Roommates.com for the proposition that a website becomes a content provider “if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the content.” (N.B. Another defense-side win citing Roommates.com.) The court was not convinced that NBCUniversal did anything of the kind, running through Section 230 case law holding that a defendant does not become a content provider by selecting or making minor alterations to content or by adding headings or other introductory material so long as that content is not itself defamatory (the latter relying on Shiamili v. Real Estate Group of New York, Inc., 17 N.Y.3d 281 (2011)).

In the end, the court easily concluded that merely providing a positive introduction and link did not make NBCUniversal an information content provider with respect to Buhl’s content:

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Ranking of “Dirtiest Hotels” Based on User Ratings is “Unverifiable Rhetorical Hyperbole”–Seaton v. TripAdvisor (Partial Forbes Cross-Post)

1 09 2012

By Eric Goldman

[This is another situation where I’m posting the first draft of this post here and linking to the Forbes version, which reads a little differently. As always, I welcome feedback about which version you liked better.]

Seaton v. TripAdvisor, LLC, 3:11-cv-549 (E.D. Tenn. August 22, 2012)

TripAdvisor compiles its user ratings into an annual ranking of the top 10 “dirtiest hotels.” Not surprisingly, hotels making the list don’t feel very honored. The 2011 loser, the Grand Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, sued TripAdvisor for defamation and related claims. Concluding that the “dirtiest hotels” ranking constituted non-actionable opinion, the court dismissed the case on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.

This opinion necessarily gets into the messy distinction between objective facts and subjective opinions.

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Section 230 Immunizes Links to Defamatory Third Party Content–Directory Assistants v. Supermedia

17 08 2012

By Eric Goldman

Directory Assistants, Inc. v. Supermedia, LLC, 2012 WL 3329615 (E.D. Va. May 30, 2012)

Unknown parties posted negative reviews of Directory Assistants to various review sites, including RipOffReport.com, Scamlnformer.com, InsiderPages.com, JudysBooks.com, and YellowPages.com. Directory Assistants claims the reviews are defamatory. Supermedia, which apparently partially competes with Directory Assistants, allegedly sent prospective customers emails with links to those reviews. Directory Assistants sued Supermedia for circulating those links.

In this ruling, the court dismisses (on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss) Directory Assistants’ suit against Supermedia on 47 USC 230 grounds.

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Using Links as Citations Helps Gizmodo Defeat a Defamation Claim–Redmond v. Gawker Media

13 08 2012

By Eric Goldman

Redmond v. Gawker Media LLC, 2012 WL 3243507 (Cal. App. Ct. August 10, 2012)

Gizmodo.com published an article, Smoke & Mirrors: The Greatest Scam in Tech, about Redmond’s venture, Peep Telephony. In addition to using the word “scam” in the title, the article had lots of denigrating things to say about Peep and about Redmond’s prior initiatives. (The opinion lays out the beefs, although some of the hot spots are apparent from a quick review of the initial article). Gizmodo subsequently published Redmond’s rebuttals. Later, Redmond apparently decided the revuttal wasn’t enough and asked Gizmodo to remove both articles, which Gizmodo declined to do. Redmond then sued Gizmodo’s parent Gawker Media for defamation. In this ruling, we see the power of anti-SLAPP statutes, as Redmond will owe a check to Gawker for his lawsuit.

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Yet Another Case Says Section 230 Immunizes Newspapers from User Comments–Hadley v. GateHouse Media

16 07 2012

By Eric Goldman

Hadley v. GateHouse Media Freeport Holdings, Inc., 2012 WL 2866463 (N.D.Ill. July 10, 2012)

One of the safest bets in Section 230 jurisprudence is that a traditional media publisher won’t be liable for user comments to its website. Last year I posted some research on Section 230 cases and message boards, and I showed that traditional media publishers easily won all of the cases I knew about.

This case adds to the canon. In a brief opinion, the court easily finds that the Stephenson County, Illinois Journal-Standard isn’t liable for a comment by pseudonymous user “Fuboy” implying that Hadley (apparently a local politician) had committed sex crimes. Hadley half-heartedly argued that because Fuboy’s identity was unknown, it could have been a Journal-Standard employee. This argument is a truism, yet it can work with judges who are dislike Section 230 and want some reason to deny the motion to dismiss (see, e.g., Vo v. PissedConsumer and my discussion about this topic). However, this judge was properly unswayed, saying that, at most, the allegation would be “sheer speculation.” Without any reason to bypass Section 230, the court grants the 12b6 motion to dismiss.

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