Several months ago, a Texas couple won the largest jury verdict-totalling almost $14 million– for an online defamation lawsuit stemming from libelous statements made by anonymous posters on the forum Topix.com. The couple, Mark and Rhonda Lesher, filed a suit against the anonymous commenters who had accused them on Topix.com of being, amongst other things, sexual deviants and drug dealers. As a result of the statements’ publication on Topix.com, the Leshers were indicted and tried (they were ultimately found not guilty) and they were forced to move out of town. Before this incident, Mr. Lesher was a prominent attorney and Mrs. Lesher ran a successful day spa. Mrs. Lesher lost her business as a result of the allegations. The accuser turned out to be a woman who lived in the same small Texas community. She had been a former client of Mr. Lesher’s and accused him, his wife and a ranch hand of sexually assaulting her.
The Leshers discovered the identity of the anonymous commenter on Topix.com when the judge presiding over their defamation case ordered Topix to turn over identifying information about the posters including the Internet Protocol, i.e. IP, addresses. The IP addresses revealed the identities of the couple’s accuser, her husband and his brother. It also included the identity of a local business and two of its employees. The recent jury verdict was handed down against the accuser, her husband and the two employees. The jury award was for mental anguish and loss of reputation.
Once the allegations of sexual assault were revealed four years ago, more than 25,000 comments were posted on Topix message boards regarding the alleged incident.
Critics of the jury award complained that it was much too large. They point out that calculating the amount of damage on a defamation claim is hardly an exact science. It is hard to calibrate the amount of injury to a reputation from defamatory comments. Consequently, jury awards in defamation cases run the gamut from very small to very large. Critics also contend that the inordinately large jury award would have a chilling effect on legitimate speech.
Now there is a malicious prosecution suit pending against the Leshers’ accusers and the District Attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted the Leshers in the original sexual assault case. The new suit accuses them of conspiring to convict the Leshers of a crime they did not commit. A jury trial is scheduled for next month.
Originally, the Leshers subpoenaed Topix for the identities of 178 pseudonyms of anonymous internet posters, which Topix rejected as overly broad. The parties later compromised by narrowing the number of targets of the subpoena. A Topix spokesman described this compromise as a way of settling the law around the tension between the right of people to voice their opinions anonymously and their targets being able to confront people who have libeled them.
After the jury verdict, there was a new twist in the case. A Tarrant County judge, Judge Dana Womack, threw out the jury verdict upon defendants’ motion to overturn the jury verdict. The judge claimed, as did the defendants, that the verdict was not supported by the evidence. Judge Womack declined to elaborate on her position in the judgment she signed.
The defendants contended in their motion to overturn the jury verdict that no evidence before the court tied the defendants to the defamatory internet posts. They also contended that no evidence supported an award of mental anguish, nor was it proven that their reputations were injured or that Mrs. Lesher’s day spa incurred lost profits as a result of the statements.
The Leshers plan to appeal the Judge Womack’s ruling and called it a “slap in the face”. The Leshers had originally asked for $5 million in damages but the jury decided to award more and almost tripled their original request.
The Leshers have so far spent $1 million in civil and criminal trial costs. They had to sell their ranch to cover their costs, and their action for malicious prosecution and their appeal of the judge’s decision overruling the jury verdict are still pending, so their costs will eventually be much higher.
One of the defendants admitted that she did not care about the incredibly high jury verdict because she did not have a dime to her name-she was judgment proof. She denies all involvement with the anonymous online posts as do the other defendants.
When Judge Womack overturned the verdict, she ordered the Leshers to pay the defendants’ court costs.
Commentators note that overturning jury verdicts is extremely rare and judges do not do it lightly. It is only done on those rare occasions where judges feel justice has not been served. It will be interesting to see what happens on the appeal of Judge Womack’s decision and on the Leshers’ case for malicious prosecution. Stay tuned…