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Tilting the Scales Business Issues with a Legal Slant

When is a Tweet Not So Sweet?

Posted in Legal Risk Management, Social Media & The Internet

Experiencing a malaise from mold, allergy-ridden Jayda Byrd believed that her apartment was infested with the filthy fungus. Unfortunately, Jayda’s landlord Sylvester ignored her pleas for deliverance from the mold. At her wit’s end, Jayda twitted her twenty twitter compatriots. The tweet read, “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Sylvester thinks it’s okay.” All atwitter, eight days later Sylvester filed a lawsuit claiming that Jayda “maliciously and wrongfully published the false and defamatory tweet on Twitter, thereby allowing the tweet to be distributed throughout the world.” Sylvester, who owns over 1500 apartments, demanded damages “in excess of $50,000.”

When asked why he filed the lawsuit, Sylvester fanned the flames by declaring that he was a “sue first, ask questions later kind of guy.” Not surprisingly, the blogosphere exploded. Responding to the online outrage, Sylvester quickly issued a news release, and described his “sue first” comment as “tongue in cheek” and offering lengthy details to explain his conduct.

Tilting the Scales Your Way.
When does gossip cross the legal line
to become defamation that damages a person’s reputation? Believe it or not, the story of Sylvester and Jayda is true (though the names have been changed). Whether it is written (libel) or verbal (slander), a plaintiff generally must first show that the defamatory statement was published (yes, email and tweets count), that it was false, and that it caused injury. Often, the greatest risk associated with a defamation lawsuit is the cost to respond to the litigation, which may well be what Sylvester intended under these circumstances. Nevertheless, his litigation strategy most certainly backfired!

Do you think that the blogosphere cares to read Sylvester’s detailed news release attempting to justify his conduct? Was it worth it for Sylvester to appear to throw his weight around by suing Jayda? Does any businessman or company want to have the moniker, “Sue first, ask questions later?” Perhaps the “tilting the scales” advice is obvious this month. Sylvester is not the first to find himself in public relations hot water for stray comments that find their way to the public through the internet. While the question for the state court and judge may be whether these facts amount to evidence of defamation, Sylvester has already been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion. While we as trial lawyers would love to think otherwise, “Sue first and ask questions later,” may need some rethinking.

Related Stories & Resources

I have 20 followers and I got sued over a Twitter Post?

KRLD Report on Libel Through Twitter

Twictionary: The Dictionary for Twitter!

For Jayda’s lawsuit, check out Horizon Group Management, LLC v. Amanda Bonnen, filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois on July 20, 2009.

Bonnen is not the first to be sued for defamatory tweets. Courtney Love, a Celebritweet,  had a tweezure and unloaded on her clothing designer who responded with litigation, Dawn Simorangkir, aka Dawn Younger-Smith, aka Boudoir Queen v. Courtney Michelle Love, filed in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles on May 26, 2009.

Even T.O. made the blogosphere when he tweeted his disappointment that his Buffalo leasing agent provided details about his favorite new house prospect to the media.

“Can I Say That? Defamation Law Made Simple”