Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Media Law in the News 2: Facebook Defamation Leads to $500K Settlement

Summary of the Case

Several days ago, a settlement on a defamation case has been settled to $500,000, over a Facebook comment made by the defendant back in November 2015.
Other than solely defamation, the plaintiff (Davyne Dial) sued Jacquelyn Hammond for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. The comment on Facebook, which ultimately gave the space for the plaintiff to make the said allegations, falsely accused the plaintiff of drunkenly killing her son.

In 1976, Dial did lose her 11-year-old son in an accidental shooting while playing with another boy, an incident in which Dial wasn’t involved. After reading the comment made by Hammond, Dial realized the level of attention around the remark started growing, causing for Dial to have her reputation greatly damaged. In her comments about the case, Dial stated that “she feels Hammond's comment crossed a line of civility than she could not tolerate”, adding how “she hopes the large settlement amount conveys a strong message to the general public in an age when most interactions with other people are virtual”.

Additionally, Dial and Hammond used to be two major rivals in the efforts to gain control over a local, low-wattage radio station WPVM. Today, Dial is the general manager for the station.

The way that the Facebook comment made by Hammond reached Dial is over a screenshot of the comment by one of Dial’s friends, who sent the picture to Dial and warned her about Hammond. Although the Facebook comment was removed by the defendant only couple of minutes after it was posted, Dial was able to add more evidence of the intent behind the remark made by Hammond, hence bringing the case to the court.

In Hammond’s defense, her attorney stated that the comment made was “misplaced in the wrong thread”, removed and “restated in the proper forum”. However, after having several screenshots from the initial thread, Dial was able to prove that Hammond’s comment was connected to the topic.

Finally, the judge ruled the case in the plaintiff’s advantage with $250k of actual damages and $250k of punitive damages that altogether come up to $500k settlement. In the article, a specialist in tort law Michael Green maintained that it is “extraordinarily rare to have a private defamation suit to result in a recovery of that magnitude”. However, the case seems to be of such volume due to the false accusation of the plaintiff’s immediate involvement in her son’s death.

Legal Questions

Since the news article talks about a settled case, there are little legal questions that could be raised. Nonetheless, my interest in this case is whether there was a better defense available for the defendant. Reading the article, I couldn’t find the defendant’s attorney’s statements as effective as they might have been if there were some additional effort put into finding a stronger defense for Hammond. Additionally, it is a lot harder for the plaintiff to prove libel in court than it is for the defendant, as the defense needs only one strong defense in order to have the charges dropped.

Another interesting portion of this case is the fact that the Defamation suit was brought forward regarding an online comment. As the Internet still has full First Amendment protection, it is interesting to see the course of this case, as a lot of intentional and malicious comments are made online without successful libel/ defamation suits.

Relevant Doctrine

Even though the case mentions several categories of law, including negligence and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the main allegation that navigated the course of the lawsuit was the Plaintiff’s case for Defamation – Libel. The reason why it is libel is because the remark made was a false fact written on Facebook. In order to prove Defamation (Libel) in court, the plaintiff (Dial) had to prove the six elements of the libelous case – publication, identification, defamation, falsity, fault and damage.

In order to prove publication, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the comment was read by at least one other person outside Dial and Hammond. Considering the fact that the comment was read and screenshotted by one of Dial’s friends, this proves publication.

Proving identification means that the plaintiff must find at least one other person who reasonably believes that the comment was directly of and concerning the plaintiff. Same as for publication, the fact that Dial’s friend sent the snapshot to Dial to warn her about Hammond’s comment gives us the external person who identified Dial as being called out.

In its definition, defamation stands for the injury to a plaintiff’s reputation, in which the plaintiff has to prove that a substantial and respectable minority of the community thinks less of her or shuns the plaintiff. Additionally, if the defamatory comment falsely accuses the plaintiff of a serious crime, the defamation is automatically assumed. Knowing the content of the comment made by Hammond (“I didn’t get drunk and kill my kid”), it falsely accuses Dial of murdering her child, so the defamation is assumed.

For the plaintiff to prove fault, we have to consider the level of engagement with media by both the plaintiff. Since Dial works as a general manager for the local radio station, and runs a Facebook page/ forum site. This would make Dial a limited purpose public figure, as she doesn’t necessarily always have a high level of access to the media. Nonetheless, Dial has to prove actual malice in order to win the case. Actual malice is defined as the knowledge of truth, and the reckless or intentional disregard for the truth when making the false statement. According to the article, Hammond knew that Dial had lost a child previously, which adds the fact that the comment was directed at the plaintiff.

To answer whether the statement is substantially true, it is already proven that it is not. Dial was not involved in the incident in which her 11-year-old son died.

According to the facts given in the article, the damages mentioned are actual injury and punitive damages. There could be no presumed damages, as the defamation didn’t influence any potential financial losses. So, in the case, Dial got $500k for the overall damages. In order to get punitive damages, however, Dial had to prove actual malice regardless of her level of access to the media.


Finally, the libel lawsuit against Hammond’s Facebook comment was successfully proven by Dial. By having screenshots of the comments regarding the false accusation of Dial’s involvement in the death of her child, she was able to prove defamation, and other mentioned allegations (IIED & negligence). As it was discussed above, the interesting part is that Dial managed to successfully bring out a defamation case for a Facebook comment, knowing that the Internet regulations are still relatively vague and unclear in certain cases, especially regarding Social Media.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this excellent recap. An aspect of the case that was not included in the original article was that we had screenshots of a private message exchange between Hammond and the individual who captured the original screenshots of the Facebook posts. The private messages were acquired in discovery and clearly proved that the comment was about myself. (Davyne Dial). So in reality the defense had very little to go on, and attempts to dismiss due to "misplaced" comments were denied by two Judges.