Courts in general are reticent to hold a company or person accountable for the criminal wrongdoing of someone else. However, there are some exceptions in civil law, most notably with regard to premises liability. In those cases, a property owner can be held liable for injuries sustained in a violent third-party attack on their land if they knew such danger was likely and failed to take steps to mitigate it. laptopwork1
What we haven’t seen – until now – is the assertion that same kind of duty exists to operators of online “property” or websites. It’s unclear how far the courts or legislators may take this duty, but the recent ruling in Doe v. Internet Brands, Inc. is a significant decision in this regard.
The case involves a social networking site geared toward connecting aspiring models to professionals within the industry. When one woman was lured to Miami by two men under the guise of an audition, she was drugged and raped and the encounter was filmed. She later learned the same thing had happened to other women at the hands of the same two men, and further, those who ran the website were aware of this specific threat and did nothing to warn users.
Our Fort Myers personal injury lawyers understand that when she filed a lawsuit, defendants sought to dismiss the case under the Communications Decency Act, codified in 47 U.S.C. 230(c). This statute has been cited in previous cases where plaintiffs sought to hold website providers, such as Craigslist.com or Backpage.com,accountable. In part, this law holds that a website owner/operator is a publisher or speaker of information, and as such, usually can’t be held liable for material posted on that site by somebody else.
So for example, when individuals have posted phony profiles on Craigslist with the underlying motive of robbery, a victim usually won’t have grounds to sue the website for failure to properly vet the listing.
Initially, the trial court agreed the Communications Decency Act applied to the Doe case, and granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, finding the law did not preclude the claim because plaintiff wasn’t seeking to hold defendant responsible as the publisher and speaker of information, Rather, she sought to hold the site responsible for failure to warn.
Although the court did not rule on the viability of that claim, it did find the CDA did not preclude her from proceeding with her lawsuit.
According to court records, the two Miami men (who were later arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison) were using the website as a means to identify targets for a rape scheme as early as 2006. They did not post their own profiles, and instead browsed the profiles of models and then used that to contact potential victims by posing as talent scouts.
The defendant in Doe didn’t purchase the site until 2008. It owns approximately 100 other websites as well. At the time of purchase, the previous owners were reportedly aware of this scheme, as several women had already fallen victim to it. Defendant learned of it soon after purchase, and even filed a lawsuit against the previous owner for not disclosing the potential liability stemming from these acts prior to sale.
And yet, users were not made aware of the problem, and the two men out of Miami continued to use the site to perpetuate their criminal acts. The attack that led to this lawsuit happened in February 2011.
California law governs here, as that is where the website is based. Similar to the standard set in Florida, California law imposes a duty to warn a potential victim of third party harm when a person or company has a “special relationship to either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or to the foreseeable victim of that conduct.”
The rape victim in this case asserts the website had a duty to warn her, and the failure to do so led to her becoming a victim of sexual assault. Following the Ninth Circuit’s review, she is not permitted to proceed with her claim, which injury lawyers across the country will undoubtedly be watching closely for precedent.
Fort Myers personal injury lawyers Chalik & Chalik can be reached at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Doe v. Internet Brands, Inc. , Sept. 17, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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Williams v. GEICO – Auto Insurance Step-Down Provisions Challenged, Sept. 16, 2014, Fort Myers Injury Lawyer Blog