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Jury awards $13.8M defamation judgment for plaintiffs in anonymous commenter case

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A jury has awarded a Texas couple $13.78 million in damages in their defamation lawsuit against a number of individuals…

A jury has awarded a Texas couple $13.78 million in damages in their defamation lawsuit against a number of individuals who anonymously posted more than 25,000 comments about them online.

"The jury found that reputations are priceless, or at least very expensive," said William Demond, a Texas attorney who represents Mark and Rhonda Lesher.

The Leshers were subjected to accusations of sexual assault, sexual deviancy, and all manner of crimes for approximately a year and a half, according to Megan Hassan, who also represents the Leshers.

The comments were posted to www.topix.com, a website that hosts local forums and message boards. The postings started about one month before the Leshers were indicted for sexually assaulting a woman who would later be identified as one of the anonymous posters.

The Leshers were tried and acquitted of all wrongdoing, but the comments continued to appear online throughout their trial and even for months after, Hassan said. The Leshers are currently pursuing a separate lawsuit for malicious prosecution against their accuser, according to Demond.

The defendants in the defamation suit were Shannon Coyel, who accused the couple of sexual assault, her husband Gerald Coyel, her husband's brother, James Coyel, the business Apache Truck & Van Parts, and Charlie and Pat Doesher, two employees of Apache Truck, according to an ABC News report. The verdict was against the Coyels and Charlie Doesher.

The Leshers were acquainted with the Coyels because Mark Lesher represented Gerald Coyel in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Seeking to unmask the individuals who were posting these remarks, the Leshers subpoenaed www.topix.com. Topix moved to quash the subpoena on a number of grounds, including First Amendment freedom of association, according to Demond. The court rejected these arguments, but the Leshers did narrow the scope of their subpoena.

The Leshers' attorneys argued that, even under highly speech protective tests for determining when anonymous commenters can be identified – such as the Dendrite analysis – the Leshers were entitled to the defendants' identities.

"In fact, we asked the court to hold us to a strict standard," including requiring the Leshers to post a message on a Topix message board giving any person who wished to contest the subpoena notice and a chance to do so, according to Demond.

That notice, posted Feb. 4, 2009, is still available online, and advised readers that failure to come forth in a timely manner and contest the subpoena would result in a waiver of any right to do so. No person contested the subpoena, and so the court required Topix to reveal the IP addresses of the commenters, Demond said.

After receiving the IP addresses from Topix and contacting internet service providers, Hassan and Demond were able to identify the addresses from which the postings were made as the Coyels' home, and Gerald Coyel's business, the lawyers said.

When asked whether they anticipated being able to collect over $13 million dollars in compensatory damages from the defendants, Demond did not anticipate a problem. "The defendant[s] [are] very solvent," he said.

When they first began the lawsuit, they did not know that the persons responsible for the thousands of defamatory postings were the same individuals responsible for accusing the Leshers of sexual assault, but when they found out "it was not surprising. We knew these individuals had motive. I couldn't say that we were shocked," Demond said.

An attorney for the Coyels could not be reached for comment.