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Ohio high court extends libel reach to Virginia resident

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A Virginia resident who posted allegedly defamatory comments on several websites may be sued in an Ohio court even if…

A Virginia resident who posted allegedly defamatory comments on several websites may be sued in an Ohio court even if his comments were not aimed at an audience there, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled.

The high court ruled 4-2 that Scott Roberts, 30, of Richmond, Va., has to respond to an Ohio court on a defamation lawsuit filed by a Glenmont, Ohio, company doing business nationally. The firm, Kauffman Racing Equipment, alleges Roberts defamed it and intentionally interfered with its business relationships when he posted comments on several message boards that the company had sold him a defective engine block.

The court decided the case, Kauffman Racing Equipment LLC v. Roberts, on June 10. The court did not rule on the merits of Kauffman’s defamation or interference claims but only said the case could be heard in an Ohio court. Roberts’ attorney, William Kepko of Mount Vernon, Ohio, said the parties will try to settle.

Roberts had sought dismissal on the ground that the Ohio courts lacked jurisdiction over him. Ohio’s high court affirmed the appellate court’s decision favoring Kauffman. The court said the state’s “long-arm” statute, which allows residents to sue nonresidents in Ohio court, applied where “defamatory statements regarding an Ohio plaintiff are made outside the state yet with the purpose of causing injury to the Ohio resident and there is a reasonable expectation that the purposefully inflicted injury will occur in Ohio.”

The court based its ruling on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Calder v. Jones, a libel lawsuit filed against Florida-resident employees of the National Enquirer by actor Shirley Jones, a California resident best known to television audiences for her role in “The Partridge Family.” The Supreme Court in that case ruled that California courts could have jurisdiction over the Enquirer’s editor and writer because California was “the focal point of both the story and the harm suffered” by Jones.

The Ohio court concluded that Roberts “hoped that his commentary would have a devastating effect on [Kauffman] and that if there were fallout from his comments, the brunt of the harm would be suffered in Ohio.”

“Roberts’s Internet commentary reveals a blatant intent to harm [Kauffman’s] reputation,” Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote for the majority. For example, Roberts wrote in October 2006: “[w]hat I loose [sic] in dollars I will make up in entertainment at their expence [sic].” He later added, “[T]his is not to get a resolution. I have a much bigger and dastardly plan than that and this is a good place to start.”

The comments appeared on the public forum sections of PerformanceYears.com and PontiacStreetPerformance.com, as well as in an item description on eBay Motors. The company received five separate inquiries from Ohio residents about Roberts’ comments, the court said, stopping short of characterizing this as actual harm sufficient for defamation.

But dissenting justices Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Ann Lanzinger disagreed with the majority’s application of Calder. The Calder court, O’Donnell wrote, stressed not only the location of the injury but also the “pervasive nature” of the Enquirer’s reach in California – particularly given the fact that its circulation there, at 600,000, was twice that in any other state. Roberts posted his comments on general auto-racing websites and an auction site, O’Donnell wrote, “none of which [has] any specific connection to Ohio or [is] more likely to be viewed by a resident of Ohio than by a resident of any other state.”

“The reach of Roberts’s comments to Ohio residents is not at all comparable to the reach of the National Enquirer’s circulation to California residents,” O’Donnell wrote. He warned that “the practical impact of the majority’s holding in this case is to unnecessarily chill the exercise of free speech.”

The majority “has ostensibly provided an avenue for any affected Ohioan to sue the originator of any negative Internet post in an Ohio court when the product has been purchased in Ohio and the negative post is read by an Ohio resident,” O’Donnell wrote.

Stuart Karle, an attorney who teaches media law at New York University School of Law and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said the Ohio court has taken one of the most expansive views he has seen of jurisdiction in libel cases.

“Ohio is now a state in which if you’re transacting business around the world with [an in-state firm], and that business can find anyone in that state who has read it in Ohio, then there is jurisdiction,” Karle said.