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Tilting the Scales Business Issues with a Legal Slant

Keeping a Good Name: Protecting Yourself From Internet Defamation

Posted in *Way Out - Advice, Constitutional Rights & Issues, Legal Risk Management, Social Media & The Internet

Local dermatologist Dr. Nomo Ackney’s former patient Idgy Skinn is posting derogatory comments and inferior ratings on HealthGrades.com, Rate MDs.com, Vitals.com, AngiesList.com, TopIx.com and Ackney’s Google Places. He is even calling out and speaking ill of Ackney’s family members and posting Ackney’s home address on Facebook. The complaints detail Ackney’s treatment and allege she is an incompetent doctor, that she committed malpractice and that she got away with it. Does Dr. Ackney have a claim? Who can she sue?

Defamation on the Internet

Yes, Ackney has a claim – for some of the comments – against Idgy Skinn. Saying that Ackney committed malpractice is actionable. Opining that Ackney is incompetent or that she did a bad job probably is not actionable.

Libel.  Written defamation (libel) is a catch-all term for any statement that hurts someone’s reputation. Just like plain ‘ole gossip, it must be false, “published” to someone else (like on the internet) and damaging to your business or reputation. In addition, it must cross over the line from protected free speech where you may freely speak your opinion (even if it’s wrong) into the realm of “gone too far.” Some examples of communications that cross the line are those that:

  • Suggest a serious crime involving moral turpitude or a felony was committed
  • Expose Dr. Ackney to hatred
  • Reflect negatively on Dr. Ackney’s character, morality or integrity
  • Suggest that Dr. Ackney suffers from a physical or mental defect that would cause others to not associate with her

Idgy Skinn Can Be Sued, But NOT the Internet Site

Many websites permit anonymous postings making it extremely difficult to know who to stop. Knowing that the offender is Idgy Skinn overcomes Ackney’s first obstacle. The 1996 Communications Decency Act, originally intended to slow pornography, also protects any Internet Service Provider from libelous posting damages.

Texas Cases on Internet Libel

Two Texas cases awarded damages for internet libel. Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville were awarded more than $13 million (later overturned by the Tarrant County trial court judge) for writing anonymous online comments on Topix.com about an alleged sexual assault at their Texas ranch. The second was a $12.5 million jury verdict in favor of Orix Capital Markets, LLC in a complicated defamation case involving statements published on the defendants cleverly named “gripe site” Predatorix.com. The case was settled after the judgment for undisclosed terms.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

Consider carefully your options and the time and expense that are likely to be related to each. As the saying goes, “you can sue someone for just about anything.” There are other options before you pull the pin on the litigation hand grenade. Consider –

  • Be Proactive – consider releasing your side of negative information first. If it is reasonable, it will be believed. “Nip it in the bud.”
  • Be Upfront – consider contacting and offering to meet with the online poster if the negative comments have already been posted. Be conciliatory.
  • Apologize if Necessary – consider ‘fessing up to your mistakes. A quick apology is less painful and costly than years of litigation, and is likely to put you in a better light as one who owns up rather than appearing to be clueless and defiant.
  • Negotiate to Get the Post Down - consider the cost to get it down. Words are forgotten. Even newsprint fades. The permanence of the web creates a major branding challenge.
  • Own Your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – consider creating your own content and drive the bad stuff down in search engine rankings. Only your worst enemy will look for dirt on you past the first Google search page. See Reputation Repair below.

Reputation Repair

Managing your internet reputation is not a new idea. In fact Looper Reed regularly works with some of our clients on crisis communications and dealing with damaging or misinformation on the internet. There are also internet service providers and websites like Reputation Changer, Reputation Management Consultants, Integrity Defenders,and Online Reputation Management that promote their ability to clear negative search results arising from an internet search engine.