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Woman Wins Libel Suit By Suing Wrong Website 323

Posted by samzenpus
from the close-enough dept.
An anonymous reader writes "It appears that Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones and her lawyer were so upset by a comment on the site TheDirty.com that they missed the 'y' at the end of the name. Instead, they sued the owner of TheDirt.com, whose owner didn't respond to the lawsuit. The end result was a judge awarding $11 million, in part because of the failure to respond. Now, both the owners of TheDirty.com and TheDirt.com are complaining that they're being wrongfully written about in the press — one for not having had any content about Sarah Jones but being told it needs to pay $11 million, and the other for having the content and having the press say it lost a lawsuit, even though no lawsuit was ever actually filed against it."
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Woman Wins Libel Suit By Suing Wrong Website

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  • by Dunbal (464142) * on Thursday September 02, 2010 @09:45AM (#33449040)

    Actually to be true to form, you should sue Digg...

  • by elmodog (1064698) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:07AM (#33449498)
    I am confused about why the owners of TheDirt.com did not respond to the lawsuit. Wouldn't it have been a trivial matter to dismiss the suit, since it was filed against the wrong site?
  • This week for me! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:07AM (#33449502)

    Similar thing happened to me this week.

    One of my websites got an 8 page letter from a large law firm in DC (http://www.Venable.com) on behalf of Verizon. Had all kinds of BS in it. All kinds of threats, examples, quotations from the CEO and gave 7 days to respond. The only problem was that there was supposed to be an S on the end of the domain name. They interchanged example.com and examples.com all through 8 pages apparently not knowing that there was a difference. I pointed it out and they said:
    "Our researchers had reason to believe that your company was the one that had published the referred to in my letter. I take it from your response that this is not the case; my apologies for the unintentional confusion. "

    My response was, "If you are going to sign your name to something, you better review who is doing the research for you" and included the relevant WHOIS info. If they had done a simple WHOIS lookup they would have found the correct company and then could have looked up the correct business address. I cc'd a bunch of the partners because dumb-asses like that need to be reined in.

    It must happen all the time, and it is unbelievable that no one noticed the problem. The attorneys should be embarrassed and the Judge/Clerks/Court should be even more embarrassed to have awarded a default judgement against the wrong company.

    And IAAL. Stupid.

  • Re:"Justice" (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:36AM (#33450092)

    "Look, we never wrote anything about your client, so we could not have slandered or libeled her. You have the wrong site."

    Why would you do that? Her lawyer gets paid for that kind of information, you don't. Your best option is to wait it out. Very few people actually go through with that kind of threat. If you're actually summoned, get a lawyer, show up, win, then sue the idiot for all she got. If a person can get $11 million for libel, you should well get your time's worth for having to defend against someone trying to take you to the bank for something you didn't do.

  • by Jezza (39441) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:41AM (#33450226)

    Can't someone (everyone) sue the lawyers who make this schoolboy error?

  • Re:Judge's career (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:45AM (#33450306) Homepage
    Is this going to harm or benefit the career of the judge?

    The weird thing about all the slashdot legal-system-hate is it always comes down to angry posters demanding not necessarily change, but that the actors who follow the system be punished.

    What exactly should the judge have done? He or she is told a certain website published a defamatory statement. How is the judge to know that it's the wrong shady gossip site?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:51AM (#33450466)

    IANAL, but I believe that regardless of whether or not the defendant shows up, the Plaintiff must still show wrongdoing on part of the defendant (other than failing to show up to court). This is a clear miscarriage of justice, and I find it incredible that NOBODY (judge, etc.) identified this error. This will be appealed and thrown out. Then maybe there will be damages going the other way (seriously, you sued the wrong f-ing person?!).

  • by Nematode (197503) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:54AM (#33450514)

    At this point, probably not.

    The better, and more efficient solution, would have been not to ignore the original mistaken lawsuit. Either call the plaintiff's attorney and get him to voluntarily dismiss out, or if that doesn't work, file a quick motion to dismiss and ask for sanctions to be imposed, on the grounds that the plaintiff and/or her lawyer signed an improper pleading, because they didn't get this simple, basic fact right and could have easily done so.

    The worst response is to ignore the suit and then squeal like a stuck pig after a default is entered.

  • by frinkster (149158) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:57AM (#33450596)

    Can't someone (everyone) sue the lawyers who make this schoolboy error?

    Yes. Well, you don't normally sue, you ask the court for sanctions against the lawyers.

    This happens more frequently than you may expect, and is part of the reason why malpractice insurance is very expensive.

  • by RJFerret (1279530) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @10:58AM (#33450642) Homepage

    Shortly after moving to where I live now, I received a letter claiming thousands in hospital bills. The problem, I'd never been hospitalized, nor even seen the hospital listed.

    In my case, I called the idiotic attorney's office.

    The stupid paralegal (IE, "intern") had obviously just done a name search and picked me as the closest geographically. Then she had the audacity to request I fax her my social security card! LOL As if I'd let such a slipshod operation have my info.

    So I'm not surprised at all, there's no way the woman would know the attorney pursued the wrong website. There's no way the court would know either, they can only deal with what information is brought to them.

    There's a reason I personally handle my legal matters when I can.

  • Re:Judge's career (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:09AM (#33450856) Homepage
    I think I understand your feelings but the practice of awarding default judgements without inspecting proofs seems as bad as not showing up in courts.

    Unless you're willing to hire a lot more judges, inspecting proofs on defaults would bring the system to a halt. A huge number of lawsuits go to default judgments; in fact, I would not be surprised if a majority of them did, mostly foreclosures and credit card debt actions.

    Suppose the New York Post gets mistakenly sued for something written on the New York Times: would we excuse the judge for not looking at the incriminated newspaper page and not noticing they are suing the wrong company, even if the NYP didn't show up in court?

    The newspaper page would not have been attached to the Complaint initiating the lawsuit, though; you're not supposed to present evidence in a Complaint (outside certain narrow exceptions), it's not the right medium for that. And if the Complaint itself as written states that the New York Post said something, and they don't show up to respond, it's not the judge's job to grab his magnifying glass and Sherlock Holmes hat and go out and investigate the case. If you want an inquisitorial justice system rather than an adversarial one, then write your congresspeople.
  • WHOIS information (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geek2k5 (882748) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:11AM (#33450892)

    If the court delivered the papers to the address in the WHOIS information, there might be a very good reason for 'TheDirt' to have NOT received them. The WHOIS address is a generic one that applies to thousands of people who don't want their home or business address accessible from WHOIS. It would be fairly easy for a summons to get lost in the mail if there is a lot of mail going through that address.

    You could also run into a problem of the summons NOT being delivered in time, especially if the owner of the domain is on vacation or had moved and failed to update their behind the scenes WHOIS information.

    What we need is more information about the delivery of the summons.

  • by DavidTC (10147) <{slas45dxsvadiv. ... } {neverbox.com}> on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:19AM (#33451026) Homepage

    A better thing to do would be to point out that she presumably paid her lawyer quite a lot of money, and that incredibly expensive lawyer couldn't even been bothered to look at the end result before sending the documents out. Oh, no, some low-paid clerk did that...but I bet the lawyer billed as if he did.

    She's the person who got scammed. I guess according to everyone else she should have paid for another absurdly expensive meeting with her lawyer to make sure he was actually doing his damn job? Or maybe only technically savoy people who can do whois lookups and whatnot can sue for libel on the internet, people who hire lawyers to figure that out when they run across a defamatory website just deserve to lose?

    The real problem is the automatic assumption that her lawsuit was bogus, thanks to big business constantly painting lawsuits as such in an attempt to corrupt the only process that people can be made whole after corporations destroy them. She's a teacher who was falsely claimed to be sleeping with football players and having caught a venereal disease...it's entirely plausibly that her employment was actually harmed. Teachers are held to pretty strict moral standards, even previous cheerleaders.

    But a more important problem is the fact that you can apparently file lawsuits against anyone in court and get a default judgment against them if they don't show up even if the facts are total nonsense. Not even 'imaginary' nonsense, where the case has no merit but the plaintiff pretends it does, but accidental nonsense, where everyone involved would agree the case has no merit if they bothered to look at it.

    I understand that, if people don't respond to the court at all, they should lose any sort of logical case, but there should actually be some sort of sanity check on that case having some legal grounds.

    For an example here, evidence is presented they are actually the person who owned the domain the stuff was posted on. 'Here is a printout of this URL, here is a whois of the domain'. Yes, if they don't show up, they couldn't challenge this 'evidence', but still there should actually be some evidence required.

    The entire court system is more and more tilted to the large guy, who can hire lawyers and actually spend the time and money to operate within it. Here, of course, it was a 'little guy' who sued with a lawsuit that went wrong, so of course it's trumpeted far and wide to show of the 'system is broken' so the next time a little guy sues for being poisoned by a large company or defamed by a site publishing nonsense that ruins their reputation, it's just one of those 'crazy lawsuits'...but the whole 'default judgment' thing is a problem only against individuals, so no one ever talks about reforming that.

    There needs to be an easier way to respond to the court, especially for people far away. There needs to be legal counsel available, for free, to people who are sued. Maybe not 'a lawyer', but at least some sort of collection of easy-to-understand printouts of the actual definitions of what they're being sued over, a diagram of the process, and what various options are, along with some templates of motions of dismissal and stuff.

  • Re:"Justice" (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:29AM (#33451244)

    Even if they sent it to the wrong guy (you), you could at least call the plaintiff and say "yeah, I got this summons, but I think you got the wrong website

    It looks as if chromium hung without submitting my post. If this argument shows up twice, I apologise.

    Any savvy lawyer will tell you to show up in court regardless if the plaintiff admits that the suit was in error. You see, an evil lawyer will tell you "we won't proceed with the suit" and get an easy default judgement.

    The onus will be on you to prove that you were lied to, which is difficult if you don't have a written promise. Even then, prevention is better than cure*.

    * I don't know how it would work in the US system, but I'm guessing it 'cure' would also cost you money.

  • Re:"Justice" (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dishevel (1105119) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:29AM (#33451248)
    You sir need to show up in court in Santa Ana, CA or send me a registered certified mailing stating that you are not in fact the corykings that owes me $450,000.00

    We know the legal system is fucked up. Just admit it.

    People who do no wrong should not be forced to jump through hoops for stupid fuckers. Ever.

  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:38AM (#33451430)
    No, by not doing that, they set themselves up for a countersuit for fraudulently suing them in the first place. Which may earn them a lot more money than their website does.
  • by Sparkycat (1703438) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @11:50AM (#33451670) Homepage

    The lawyer would have at least gone to the website with her in person. If she cared that much about some nasty comment in a website, you think she would notice that the lawyer was on the wrong site, wouldn't you?

    ...

    If you are pissed about some website, you don't exactly forget what the website looked like!

    Not necessarily. Remember a little while back, when a quirk in google's page ranking sent searches of "facebook.com" to an unrelated news site? Hundreds of non-techie users were extremely confused, trying to "log into facebook" through the news site's comment form.

    Just because you would never forget what a website looks like, doesn't mean a less net-savvy person and her lawyer wouldn't.

  • Re:"Justice" (Score:3, Interesting)

    by canajin56 (660655) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @12:47PM (#33452934)
    Opening a letter that's not addressed to you is a crime. Failing to commit a crime is neither lazy or idiotic. The proper course of action is to return to sender. Can you RTS a registered letter? What if it wasn't sent by registered letter, but served in person?

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