WASHINGTON, March 9, 2014 — Courtney Love, the irreverent musician known for her wild behavior and foul words, won a first of its kind “tweeting” libel lawsuit this past week. A Los Angeles jury found she did not defame her former attorney in a tweet.
Rhonda Holmes, who was Love’s attorney, sought $8 million against Love for tarnishing her reputation in a tweet by stating that Holmes was “bought off.” Here is the exact message Love sent in June, 2010:
“@noozjunkie I was … devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of San Diego was bought off @fairnewsspears perhaps you can get a quote.”
Ms. Holmes was hired to look into missing funds from the estate of Kurt Cobain, Love’s late husband.
Love maintained that she believed she was sending a direct message, not a tweet visible to the public. She quickly erased it.
The Holmes-Love relationship ended in less than six months. Ms. Holmes says it had been contingent on Love refraining from substance abuse. Love, apparently, later, had second thoughts. Holmes also said that Love became a difficult client. When the relationship ended, Holmes says Love went to Twitter as an act of vengeance.
A jury listened to eight days of testimony. They found that although Love’s statement had a natural tendency to injure Holmes’ business, they did not believe she knew the statement was false, despite that Love offered nothing to show Holmes was “bought off.”
Love said outside court that she was concerned that jurors would have difficulty relating to her and admitted that she was “controversial.”
Love dodged a bullet. The jury’s decision rested on Love’s claim that she did not know the statement was false. That does not matter. The jury got it wrong. Their decision was not consistent with the law. The speaker’s beliefs are irrelevant until it is time to determine damages.
To recover in a defamation claim, the aggrieved individual must show:
- That a false statement of fact was made.
- That the statement was published, meaning it was conveyed to someone other than the plaintiff, and that at least one person who saw it or heard it understood it as having a defamatory meaning. Publication includes statements posted on the Internet, on social media websites, tweets, in a blog post, comment, review, or as a video or audio statement.
- That the false statement was made negligently, or intentionally, with little or no reason to believe the statement was factually correct. In certain situations, actual malice must be proven in addition to falsity. Actual malice can be proven if the person knowingly publishes the false statement of fact or at least recklessly does so.
- That some injury to the plaintiff resulted from the defamation.
Generally, there are four defenses to libel or slander: truth, consent, accident and privilege. Truth means essentially true. Consent to publication will bar any recovery. Accidental publication is not publication. Privilege confers immunity on some who are engaged in doing the business of the public such as judges, attorneys, jurors, and witnesses in legal proceedings.
In common law (the law brought over from England) there were four types of communications that were considered so harmful that the plaintiff was not required to prove specific harm, or damages, in order to prevail in a lawsuit. These communications were then, and remain now in all but a few states:
- Detrimental statements relating to a person’s business or profession;
- False claims alleging someone committed crimes of moral turpitude (conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals);
- Statements that a woman was unchaste; and
- Claims that the person suffers from a “loathsome” disease.
Damage awards rendered by most juries today ultimately reflect real harm.
Ms. Love dodged a bullet here. That was not the case, however, in another situation where Ms. Love decided to disparage someone. In March, 2011, she settled a defamation lawsuit, agreeing to pay a fashion designer $430,000 for derogatory and untrue comments she made on Twitter and her MySpace blog. A $4,000 dispute over payment for a dress led Love to make numerous disparaging remarks about the designer’s business. Love also felt it was appropriate to call the woman a “whore” and a “convicted prostitute.”
The right of free speech that we Americans cherish has limits. You cannot shout ‘fire” in a movie theater if there is no fire.
Depending upon circumstances and what is said, there can be both criminal and civil repercussions for exercising your vocal chords, or the keys on your cellphone, tablet, or computer.
Take the example of Crystal Cox, who claimed press status as an investigative blogger. A federal judge ruled that although she was a blogger, her work and numerous websites under business names showed she did not qualify to get the protections journalists are afforded in defamation cases. Thus, the verdict of $2.5 million judgment was entered against her in an Oregon federal court.
Ms. Cox had criticized financial companies. Her “reviews” adversely affected these businesses.
Another example of misdirected outrage that cost the speakers came in Texas in 2008. A regretful cacophony of malicious people took their misguided outrage viral. Mr. and Mrs. Lester had not yet been indicted for sexual assault, but the community decided they were guilty. The electronic world became a repository for a then anonymous scorching, mostly on the web forum Topix.com. Despite the couple’s complete acquittal, the postings continued. Mr. and Mrs. Lester identified the posters. They sued because the posts accusing them of being sexual deviants, molesters and drug dealers caused them, they say, to be indicted, and then to move out of town. Mrs. Lester lost her day spa business. They filed a defamation lawsuit and in 2012 a jury awarded them $13.78 million.
What ever happened to mom’s rule about not saying anything if you don’t have something nice to say?
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.