WisBar News: Appeals Court Upholds Facebook Defamation Judgment, and Punitive Damages Award:

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  • WisBar News
    August
    25
    2015

    Appeals Court Upholds Facebook Defamation Judgment, and Punitive Damages Award

    Joe Forward

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    Aug. 25, 2015 – John Beckett created a Facebook page in someone else’s name and posted disparaging and negative comments about that person. Recently, a state appeals court upheld the judgment against Beckett for defamation.

    The circuit court, after a bench trial, found that Beckett had malicious intent when he used Facebook to attack Stephen Laughland, an educator at Marquette University and U.W.-Milwaukee. The court awarded general and punitive damages totaling $25,000.

    In Laughland v. Beckett, 2014AP2393 (Aug. 25, 2015), a three-judge panel for the District I Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that Beckett was malicious in publicly making factual assertions about Laughland that were not substantially true.

    Beckett Takes to Facebook

    In 2010, Beckett sent threatening emails to Laughland’s Marquette email account, saying he would pay for disregarding the financial freedoms America provides, among other things. He also created Facebook page using the name “Stephen Laughland II.”

    Laughland's acquaintance told Laughland that someone was saying horrible things about Laughland under a Facebook account associated with Stephen Laughland II. A quick Google search revealed the Facebook account, which Beckett had created.

    The Facebook page displayed a photo of Laughland and negative comments about him, posted by a third-party (revealed to be Beckett) to disparage Laughland in his own name.

    The Facebook posts continued for a four-month period. In one post, Beckett said: “This is what I would like to consider a public service profile for anyone that is not aware of Mr. Laughland’s total disregard for the financial freedoms we as consumers cherish.

    “It is due to people like this that Banks are in trouble, we pay more to use our credit cards, and it is hard to trust people … Since he knows so much about bank manipulation, Marquette must have believed [sic] that he was an excellent choice [sic] to teach Bank Management,” the Facebook posting continued.

    “It is nice being a loser and taking advantage of banks and credit card companies,” wrote Beckett, mocking Laughland with a first-person narrative. “I am not sure why more people have not caught on to the fact that I am a low life manipulative person. I wonder what my children think about having such a loser for a father.”

    Multiple people “friended” the page, meaning they could see everything that was posted to it. Beckett was dating the mother of Laughland’s child, Jean Placke, when the content was posted. Laughland and Placke were in the midst of a child custody battle.

    Laughland had suspected Placke’s involvement and hired an attorney to investigate who created the page. Beckett later said Placke did not know about the Facebook page.

    In 2012, Laughland filed a defamation action against Beckett. Ultimately, the circuit court concluded that Laughland succeeded in proving the defamation claim.

    The appeals court panel rejected Beckett’s claim that Laughland’s lawsuit was time-barred, noting that Laughland filed the claim within three years of Beckett’s last post, and in 2010, the statute of limitations for defamation claims changed to three years.

    The panel also rejected Beckett’s defense that his Facebook posts were true, based on public records, and alternatively, that his posts about Laughland were his opinions.

    Defamation claims are proved, the appeals panel explained, if a plaintiff can prove the defendant publicly communicated a false statement in speech or writing, and the communication harmed the subject’s reputation within the community. 

    Statements Not Substantially True

    First, the panel ruled that the statements were not substantially true, which is an absolute defense.

    Beckett claimed that statements indicating Laughland “manipulated banks and credit card companies,” engaged in “underhanded business practices,” and was a was a “low life,” “preying swindler,” and a “loser” were true based on records that several banks had filed foreclosure, bankruptcy, and collection actions against Laughland.

    “Beckett claims that these statements are all based on public records,” wrote Judge Joan Kessler. “In fact, they are based only on Beckett’s speculation about the meaning of those public records … Becket provided no evidence that the claims made by the banks involved allegations of Laughland’s fraud, deceit, or bank ‘manipulation.’”

    Statements Not Protected Opinions

    The panel also rejected Beckett's claim that his Facebook posts were protected as opinions and defamatory statements must be statements of fact.

    “We conclude that Beckett’s statements were all variations of the underlying (and unsubstantiated) factual assertion that Laughland engaged in fraudulent financial activity,” Judge Kessler wrote.

    “Beckett’s Facebook posts did not merely opine that Laughland was a ‘low life loser,’” Judge Kessler continued. “Rather, Beckett made specific allegations – many written in the first person – accusing Laughland of defrauding banks, ‘manipulating banks and credit card companies’ and engaging in ‘underhanded business practices.’”

    Laughland’s Reputation Harmed

    Beckett argued that Laughland’s reputation was not harmed, because there was no evidence that anyone other than Laughland’s acquaintance viewed the Facebook page.

    The panel rejected Beckett’s argument, noting the page had six “friends” and was accessible to other Facebook users, whether they were “friends” or not.

    “All of the defamatory comments, placed on a social media page accessible to other social media users, and Becket’s active efforts to solicit ‘friends,’ support the circuit court’s conclusion that Beckett intended to, and indeed did, lower Laughland’s reputation,” Judge Kessler explained.

    Damages

    Finally, the panel upheld the award of $15,000 in general damages for diminished reputation and $10,000 in punitive damages to deter this type of conduct.  

    The panel noted that general damages allow recovery for a nonpecuniary losses like humiliation, mental anguish, and impairment to one’s reputation and standing in the community. No proof is required, and $15,000 was reasonable, the panel concluded.

    Punitive damages were also appropriate, the panel explained, because acting with “malice” provides a basis for punitive damage awards in private defamation actions.

    The circuit court found that Beckett acted with malice, intending to improve his standing with Laughland’s former girlfriend while damaging Laughland’s reputation.

    “The punitive damage award was two-thirds of the general damages award,” Judge Kessler noted. “Wisconsin courts have approved punitive damages in ratios far exceeding compensatory damages.”