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Internet posting can lead to privacy claim, court finds

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Posting private information about someone on the Internet is enough to allow an invasion-of-privacy claim no matter how many people…

Posting private information about someone on the Internet is enough to allow an invasion-of-privacy claim no matter how many people actually see it, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held this week. 

In the published opinion, the court created a broad rule "that the publicity element of an invasion-of-privacy claim is satisfied when private information is posted on a publicly accessible Internet website."

The case centers on a MySpace profile set up in 2006 mocking the plaintiff. The profile, under the name "Rotten Candy," included a picture of the plaintiff. It said she had a sexually transmitted disease, was cheating on her husband and was addicted to plastic surgery.

The woman had recently learned that she had a sexually transmitted disease after going to Fairview Cedar Ridge Clinic. A medical assistant who is related to the plaintiff’s husband worked at the clinic. After seeing the woman there, the assistant became curious and accessed the plaintiff’s medical file without authorization.

The medical assistant then told another relative, who worked at a different Fairview-owned medical facility, what she found. That relative then passed the news on to the woman’s husband. The plaintiff and her husband were separated at the time. They have since divorced.

The hospital fired the medical assistant after it learned that she had accessed the woman’s file five times. A week later the MySpace page was set up and many of the woman’s MySpace contacts were invited to view it. It was taken down within a day or two.

The woman then sued Fairview, the two relatives who worked for Fairview and a third relative she suspected of creating the MySpace page for invasion of privacy and a variety of other claims.

The trial court dismissed the case. The trial court said a privacy claim must include a showing that a private fact has been publicized, and the woman had not established that enough people saw the Web page to meet the publicity requirement. When it was taken down, the "Rotten Candy" profile only had six "friends."

The appeals court said that placing private information on the Internet is adequate to meet the publicity element, no matter how many people actually see it. The court compared placing information on the Internet to putting a poster in a shop window, or radio broadcasting in the middle of the night.

"If a late-night radio broadcast aired for a few seconds and potentially heard by a few hundred (or by no one) constitutes publicity as a matter of law, a maliciously fashioned webpage posted for one or two days and potentially read by hundreds, thousands, millions (or by no one) also constitutes publicity as a matter of law," the court wrote. 

Even so, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the invasion-of-privacy claim on other grounds. The court found the woman had not provided sufficient evidence that the hospital and one of the relatives had participated in creating the MySpace page. The plaintiff had already dropped her claims against the other two relatives.

One medical privacy-related claim was reinstated and remanded to the trial court.