Cyberlaw, Defamation, Document Review, Free Speech, Technology, Texas

Texas Couple Wins Massive Defamation Verdict Against (No Longer) Anonymous Commenters

We’ve covered the trials and tribulations — and occasional dishonorable public unveiling — of anonymous internet commenters before. And we have learned that just because someone comments anonymously does not mean no one can find out their identity.

A Texas couple, a day spa owner and a prominent attorney, won a large defamation suit against would-be anonymous commenters last week, showing once again that your secret identity is never as secret as you might hope.

The couple may not be billionaires, but after the massive defamation verdict, which stemmed from untrue criminal accusations made online, they might feel compelled to start rocking out to a milli, a milli, a milli, a milli

ABC News has the story of Mark and Rhonda Lesher, and last week’s nearly $14 million jury verdict:

A Texas couple who filed a defamation lawsuit over three years ago against anonymous posters on the Internet forum Topix.com won a $13.8 million judgment from a jury.

Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville, Texas, filed a suit against anonymous commenters who accused them of being sexual deviants, molesters, and drug dealers on Topix, once self-described as “the country’s largest local forum site.”

The defamation claims arose after the couple were tried in 2009 for sexual assault, along with one of the men who worked on their Texarkana ranch. They were acquitted, but even after the trial, the internet continued sizzling with hateful comments, particularly on the Topix.com.

At first, the couple tried to subpoena information surrounding almost 200 anonymous commenters on the site. But that discovery request was quashed, and eventually the search was narrowed down to a few key IP addresses, where most of the comments came from. It turned out that Lesher’s original accusers were the ones making statements the jury found to be defamatory:

An amended petition in the District Court of Tarrant County Texas in July 2009 had named six parties including Shannon Coyel, the couple’s accuser, her husband Gerald Coyel and his brother James Coyel. It also included the business Apache Truck & Van Parts in Kennedale, Texas, and two of its employees, Charlie and Pat Doescher. The Leshers allege the computers tied to the IP addresses were used by the Doeschers.

Last week’s verdict included judgments against the Coyels and Charlie Doesher. The jury ordered Jerry Coyel to pay Mark Lesher $5.1 million for mental anguish and loss of reputation. Shannon Coyel and Doesher must pay $1.7 million each, according to the jury’s verdict.

Jerry Coyel must pay Rhonda Lesher $3.168 million for mental anguish, loss of reputation and loss of her business, a hair salon and day spa she owned in Clarksville. Shannon Coyel and Doesher were ordered to pay Rhonda Lesher $1.056 million each.

Talk about turning the tables. And the saga is still not over. Apparently, the Coyels and Red River County District Attorney Val Varley, who unsuccessfully prosecuted the original sexual assault case, are facing a malicious prosecution trial in August.

A local technology attorney gave his take to KHOU about the case’s First Amendment ramifications:

“It’s pretty significant,” said Dallas-based cyber attorney Peter Vogel, who is not involved in the case. “People cannot hide behind the First Amendment and say anything they want.”

Mother, tell your children not to post defamatory anonymous comments. Because otherwise, you might get sued, sued, sued my darling. And you might lose, lose, lose, my darling.

Texas couple awarded $13 million in Web defamation case [KHOU]
‘Anonymous’ Posters to Pay $13 Million for Defamatory Comments [ABC News]

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