On April 24, 2012, a Texas jury awarded $13.78 million to a married couple in a case based upon an extended campaign of defamation on the website Topix.com - to be specific, more than 1,700 separate statements accusing the plaintiffs of a wide array of criminal activity and, shall we say, unusual sexual practices, among other misconduct. The husband was awarded $5.1 million from one defendant and $1.7 million each from two others. The wife was separately awarded $3.168 million from the first defendant (the less-than-round number reflecting in part the value of the wife's business, which she allegedly lost as a result of the defamation).
A brief review of the 733-page complaint is enough to make one's skin crawl, and if the allegations are to be believed – as clearly the jury did – the size of the verdict becomes more understandable from a gut perspective. That said, the core of a defamation action is injury to reputation; i.e., the impairment of the plaintiffs' good name in the view of their community or a respectable part thereof. The sheer size this verdict begs the question of whether the jury was actually attempting to compensate for reputational injury, or was simply trying to smack the defendants with as large a number as they could rationalize.
Even when not confronted with conduct as disturbing and provocative as that alleged by the plaintiffs in this case, juries face difficult questions when evaluating damage to reputation caused by false statements on social media. For example: read more »