Mark and Rhonda Lesher filed a defamation lawsuit after anonymous commenters from the Internet forum Topix.com posted thousands of posts accusing them of being drug dealers, criminals and sexual deviants. On Friday, April 20, a jury awarded the Texas couple $13.75 million. According to Meagan Hassan, the Lesher’s attorney, this award is the largest award from an Internet libel case.
Leshers Accused then Cleared of Sexual Assault Charge
The Leshers had made Texas news after Shannon Coyel accused them of sexual assault. After the allegations surfaced in 2008, over 25,000 comments were posted on the Topix forums. These forums are accessible to anyone with Internet access. The comments accused the Leshers of participating in sexual deviance, criminal behavior and dealing drugs. They also attacked the Leshers’ businesses. Although a jury found the couple not guilty of sexual assault in January 2009, anonymous posters on Topix.com continued to attack them.
Identifying Anonymous Posters
When the Leshers filed their lawsuit in February 2009, the judge demanded Topix to turn over Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of the anonymous posters. An IP address refers to a string of numbers that is unique to each computer with an Internet connection.
The Leshers initially sued 178 anonymous posters, but the IP addresses narrowed the defendants down to two computers. These computers were used by Shannon and Gerald Coyel and one of their employees. Hassan said that she was able to locate more than 25,000 libelous posts on Topix that attacked her clients. She introduced 800 of the worst posts in court.
Due to the attacks on the forum, the Leshers closed their businesses and left Clarksville, a town with a population of about 3,500 people. They had lived in this small Texas town for over 20 years. Rhonda owned a beauty salon and Mark was an attorney. They claim that their businesses and their personal reputations were badly damaged by the comments on the online forum. The Leshers accumulated over $250,000 in legal bills and were forced to sell their ranch to pay their fees.
The jury required Gerald Coyel to pay $5.1 million to Mark Lesher to compensate him for the loss of his reputation and mental anguish that he suffered as a result of the Internet postings. In addition, he must pay Rhonda Lesher 3.168 million for loss of reputation, loss of her business and mental anguish. Shannon Coyel and Charlie Doescher, the Coyel’s employee, were each ordered to pay $1.7 million to Mark Lesher and $1.056 million to Rhonda Lesher.
Internet Anonymity and First Amendment Rights
This case has raised the issue of Internet anonymity. Many Internet users are under the false assumption that they can remain relatively anonymous online by choosing a unique screen name and not posting identifying information. However, IP addresses are unique to each computer and can be traced to an individual computer. This area of law is currently in flux, with many states working to determine the limits of Internet behavior. On one hand, the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech. On the other hand, defamation law sets limits on that freedom, preventing citizens from unfairly damaging the reputation of others. The laws that apply to Internet communication are currently in flux, with many more lawsuits likely to follow.
About the author
Written by Jeff Sanderson for WalnutCreekDUILaw.com.