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Archive for the ‘Internet Defamation and Media Liability’ Category

Can You Hear (or See) Me Now? No, and that May Constitute Spoliation

Posted on: February 24th, 2016

Digital business voice recorder

By: Andy Treese

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently held that a municipality may be subject to sanctions for failure to preserve audio recordings of a police pursuit when the recordings were destroyed in the ordinary course of business before it received ante litem notice or other actual notice of contemplated litigation.

Last year we reported here about Phillips v. Harmon, in which the Supreme Court of Georgia held that the duty to preserve evidence may be triggered by a party’s constructive notice of pending or contemplated litigation.  The ruling marked a significant expansion from the previous rule, which required actual notice (such as a spoliation letter, letter of representation or ante litem notice) to trigger the duty.  We expressed concern that in the wake of Phillips, plaintiffs would begin to seek sanctions for spoliation based upon failure to preserve evidence when a defendant “should have” known a lawsuit was coming, and that defendants with relatively short record retention periods for audio or video recordings would be particularly vulnerable to these claims.   A recent ruling by a full panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals seems to validate those concerns.

In Loehle v. Georgia Department of Public Safety, 334 Ga. App. 836 (2015), plaintiffs filed suit against the Georgia Department of Public Safety and the City of Atlanta after they were injured by suspected carjackers fleeing from police. According to the opinion, Atlanta failed to preserve audio recordings related to the pursuit, destroying them pursuant to its customary retention period after about 120 days, prior to the receipt of ante litem notice.  The trial court held, applying pre-Phillips law, that Atlanta’s failure to preserve the recordings did not constitute spoliation because when the recording were destroyed, the city lacked actual notice that the plaintiffs were contemplating suit.  The Georgia Court of Appeals held, 6-1, that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard, vacated the trial court’s ruling as to spoliation, and remanded for re-consideration under the standard set forth in Phillips.  The sole dissenter, Judge Andrews, would have affirmed the trial court’s ruling because the plaintiffs did not make or preserve “constructive notice” arguments as to the spoliation issue before filing their appeal.

Strategically, the Loehle ruling emphasizes the importance of prompt and thorough investigation of potential claims, even in the absence of a preservation request. Companies with relatively short retention policies (30, 60, or 90 days), particularly regarding audio and video-recordings, may want to re-examine their current policies and consider involving counsel early in pre-suit investigations.

A petition for certiorari has been filed to the Supreme Court of Georgia; we will monitor the case and report on future developments.

Court Hears Oral Argument in Closely-Watched Yelp Defamation Case

Posted on: November 14th, 2014

foree

 

 

 

 

By Matt N. Foree

Business owners and free speech advocates are anxiously awaiting a Virginia Supreme Court ruling in the Yelp, Inc., v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning defamation case.  In this matter, the owner of a carpet cleaning company sued seven anonymous parties who submitted negative reviews about his company on Yelp. Hadeed then sought to subpoena from Yelp information identifying these individuals.  The lower court and the appeals court ordered Yelp to turn over the information.  Yelp appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, which heard oral argument at the end of October.

The court’s decision must weigh the competing interests of the business in protecting its reputation versus the right to anonymous free speech.  The case has garnered the interest of third party advocates, including social media entities.  Google and others, including Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, have filed an amicus, or “friend of the court” brief, regarding their interests in protecting anonymous speech.  These parties argued that the lower courts erred by failing to protect the First Amendment rights of anonymous online speakers.

Significantly, the Federal Trade Commission has received over 2,000 consumer complaints about Yelp since 2008.  Most of the complaints are from business owners alleging that they received unfair or false reviews on Yelp. The interest in the Yelp decision signifies its importance in the quickly developing area of the law regarding on-line review websites.  The court’s ruling is expected in early 2015.

Internet Defamation: Parents Can Be Held Liable for Children’s Facebook Posts

Posted on: October 16th, 2014

76764146By: Wayne S. Melnick

One of the newest and most quickly developing areas of tort liability is regarding torts committed over the internet. The most common “traditional” tort that occurs (or is alleged to have occurred) when it comes to social media posting is for defamation. A recent case is Georgia has just affirmed the potential for parental liability for the posts made by their children in this “wild west” frontier of internet tort liability.

In Boston v. Athearn, 2014 WL 5068649 (Georgia Ct. of App. Case No. A14A0971, decided October 10, 2014), the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed (in part) a trial court decision granting summary judgment to the defendants and sending the case back for trial. In Boston, Alexandria (“Alex”) Boston, through her parents, brought suit against Dustin Athearn, his parents, and other defendants when, posing as Alex, Dustin created a Facebook account and profile and posted photographs and statements in that forum that constituted libel under Georgia law. In a nutshell, Dustin and a female friend of his used the Athearn family computer to create the account and made posts that indicated racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation. Dustin and the friend also sent out “friend” requests to many of Alex’s classmates, teachers, and extended family members. Within a day or two, the account was connected as Facebook “friends” with over 70 people. Dustin and the friend continued to add information and posted status updates and comments on other users’ pages that were graphically sexual, racist, or otherwise offensive; with some falsely stating that Alex was on a medical regimen for mental health and that she took illegal drugs.

When Dustin’s parents were informed (after the truth was discovered at school), they disciplined Dustin and forbid him for one week from seeing his friends after school. Critically, the unauthorized page, however remained accessible on Facebook for an additional 11 months and was eventually deactivated by Facebook officials approximately 2 weeks after the lawsuit was filed. During the 11 months the unauthorized profile and page could be viewed, the Athearns made no attempt to view the unauthorized page, and they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information that Dustin was charged with electronically distributing. They did not attempt to learn to whom Dustin had distributed the false and offensive information or whether the distribution was ongoing. They did not tell Dustin to delete the page, they made no attempt to determine whether the false and offensive information Dustin was charged with distributing could be corrected, deleted, or retracted.

In reversing the grant of summary judgment to Dustin’s parents, the appellate court found that there were questions of fact to be resolved by a jury whether Dustin’s parents were “negligent in failing to compel Dustin to remove the Facebook page once they were notified of its existence.” This theory of liability was not grounded in vicarious liability, but rather direct liability – whether Dustin’s parents were, themselves, negligent in failing to supervise and control their child with regard to conduct which posed an unreasonable risk of harming others. The court grounded the potential liability not in the parents’ allowing Dustin original access to the internet, but rather, because they continued to be responsible for supervising Dustin’s use of the computer and Internet after learning that he had created the unauthorized Facebook profile.

This case opens a very potentially slippery slope to parents and what they might be held legally responsible for once they learn of the harm their child is causing on the internet. The message is clear – once parents know their child has done harm with digital weapons, it is incumbent upon the parents to end the harm or potentially face ultimate liability for failing to do so. We will continue to watch this case and see if, after trial, liability is ultimately laid at the feet of the parents.