Federal Judge Leon Holmes today awarded $1.25 million in damages to a Searcy woman over defamatory comments published about her on Thedirty.com, a “reality” website that publishes gossip about non-famous people.
The verdict was against Dirty World Entertainment Recordings. The blogger who created the site, known as Nik Richie, had been dropped from the lawsuit as an individual defendant, a fact he had boasted about on-line, according to the plaintiff’s attorney. (My original post said Dirty World Entertainment operated the website, as the lawsuit indicated. I’ve since heard from an attorney for Richie, who says that’s incorrect, as explained farther on.)
The company didn’t appear in court to contest the lawsuit, said Tre Kitchens, the attorney for plaintiff Malia Stewart. He said he’d continue efforts to collect the judgment, including seeking orders to attach its computers and equipment in other states if necessary.
The judge awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Kitchens said Stewart had not sued for money but for justice.
After remarks were posted about Stewart on the website — according to her complaint an anonymous comment claimed, among others, the married mother of three had babies by different fathers to collect child support — she asked that the comment be removed. It was not removed. Kitchens wrote a letter. His request also was refused, although under the site’s terms of service it says it will not allow false or defamatory comments. The comments remain, at least they did until the website apparently was hacked several days ago and is currently out of service. It is not accessible today. Stewart said the complaints caused her distress and her children were told about the comment and additional comments by others at school.
Some background on Nik Richie here. Here’s a report on the hack, including Richie’s outraged assertion that he’s a free speech advocate. There’s been some split among federal courts over the ability to sue over defamatory comments posted on websites. Protection is extended under federal law to comments posted by third parties on open forums, sometimes even when websites have some editorial control. But Stewart’s suit notes that Thedirty chooses comments for posting, giving it responsibility. Here’s a discussion of legal issues in a similar case from Kentucky .(The decision mentioned in that link was later reversed, for the record. It was decided in Ohio, but arose in Kentucky, contrary to what I suggested originally.)
Judge Holmes had dismissed Richie (Hooman Karamian, aka Nik Richie) as a personal defendant because the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had held in a similar case that posting defamatory material on the Internet, “standing alone, is insufficient to create personal jurisdiction over a defendant in the plaintiff’s home state.”
I’ve sent a note to Richie seeking a comment.
UPDATE: His comment on Twitter below. His link takes you to a post in which he repeats the website’s comments about the plaintiff. Dirty business.
UPDATE II: A lawyer for Dirty World LLC, David Gingras, says he represents Dirty World LLC, which operates Thedirty.com. He says there’s been no verdict against the company that operates the website because the plaintiff’s lawyer sued a different company, which does not operate the website. He says the company named, Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, does not own or have a relationship with the website. The actual owner, he says, was never named as a party or served with papers. “Accordingly, it is blatantly false to suggest or imply that Ms. Stewart has a judgment against Dirty World. She absolutely does not.” Gingras said the plaintiff’s attorney should have known this from Richie’s pleading, which mentioned the difference in names. He said Kitchens never tried to amend the complaint to name the correct party.
In short, Ms. Stewart certainly has obtained a judgment against Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, but that company has nothing whatsoever to do with Dirty World, LLC or TheDirty.com. She is welcome to try to collect that judgment, bearing in mind that the plaintiff in the Sarah Jones case also has an $11 million default judgment against the same entity (see attached copy). However, to the extent that Ms. Stewart claims that she has a judgment against TheDirty.com or Dirty World, LLC, those claims are completely false.
Tre Kitchens responds:
I appreciate counsel for the.dirty telling me who the next lawsuit is going to be against. Arkansas courts declined to exercise jurisdiction over Mr. Richie, I doubt California courts will express any such reluctance.
The 9th Circuit’s interpretation of the CDA is more favorable to victims of these types of defamatory attacks.
This isn’t over.
To which Richie’s lawyer responded:
As for amending the Complaint, I am fairly sure that the statute of limitations has passed. In addition, assuming that Ms. Stewart actually received a final judgment, that judgment would act as a complete and total bar against suing any other parties for the same events. In other words, you don’t get to run around filing multiple lawsuits against multiple parties for a single event until you get a result that you’re happy with. You only get one bite at the apple, and Ms. Stewart already got her bite. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re suing the correct apple (she could, of course, sue her lawyers for malpractice unless they explained all this to her).
I asked both Richie and his attorney — nomenclature of operating company aside — about the claim of defamation and why the remarks weren’t removed as requested. Read on:
Gingras responds at some length, saying, in part:
The law on this issue could not be any clearer — website owners and operators are NOT RESPONSIBLE for the accuracy of content posted by third parties. I have probably explained this 100+ times to the media, but some people just refuse to listen. The example that everyone seems to understand is this: you can’t sue Mark Zuckerberg for something false on Facebook. You can only sue the author who created the defamatory comments, not the website where those comments were posted. That has been the law since 1996, and it remains the law today.
… If someone posts a false comment on TheDirty.com, they can easily have it removed — the website follows exactly the same policy as major sites like Google — content will be removed if the person seeking removal goes to court and proves the statements in question are false. Beyond this, the site’s owners cannot and will serve as the arbiter of truth. That’s a job for the courts, not for websites.