I recently commented on the impact of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision limiting the protections afforded to service providers under the Communications Decency Act. In that case, the court refused to provide immunity to website owners who encourage unlawful or defamatory statements. Less than a month later, the Ohio Court of Appeals also refused to protect the “interests” of bloggers and others who engage in online defamatory statements. The Ninth Circuit’s message was that if you encourage unlawful conduct, the CDA will not provide you with unwarranted solace. The Ohio Court of Appeals message is that if you post defamatory statements online, you may be sued in a State where the other party’s reputation is damaged.
In Kauffman Racing Equipment v. Roberts, a Virginia resident, Mr. Roberts, purchased an engine block on the Internet. Mr. Roberts was dissatisfied with his purchase and decided to express his dissatisfaction by posting a number of statements on various Internet websites. Kauffman Racing, a company with its main place of business in Ohio, filed a lawsuit in Ohio. Mr. Roberts moved to dismiss alleging that Ohio did not have personal jurisdiction over him. The Ohio Court of Appeals disagreed.
In applying Ohio’s long-arm statute as well as Constitutional principles, the Court held that Ohio’s long arm statute applied and that, as a result of the postings, exercising jurisdiction over Roberts established the necessary “minimum contacts” under the jurisdiction. The implications of this ruling are far reaching.
Let’s say, for example, that a blogger posts defamatory comments about an individual. An implication that the individual has engaged in misconduct, such as perjury (even if the statement is qualified by the word “allegedly”) would qualify. Let’s further assume that the defamed individual is applying for a position with a college in Virginia. Under the Kauffman Court’s reasoning, the defamed individual may sue the blogger in Virginia. This applies even if the blogger lives in the West Coast and has no intentions of ever visiting Virginia. The blogger is now exposed to liability in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, aka the “rocket docket,” where litigation is intense, bloggers are not particularly appreciated, and jury awards can be devastating. So go ahead, blog and defame others… at your own risk.