As a wise person once said, truth often is stranger than fiction. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas (the “Appellate Court”) recently decided Hosseini v. Hansen, a bizarre case involving the intertwining of a tax preparation business, primate trainers and enthusiasts, and a defamation claim. Despite the unique factual circumstances, the case provided good general insight into social media use as it relates to defamation.
The plaintiff in this case sued a group of primate enthusiasts for defamation that she alleged damaged her tax preparation business. When a jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her US$315,000, the defendants filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the trial court granted on the grounds that it thought the evidence presented could not support the verdict. The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case.
The plaintiff owned a tax preparation business and, like many small businesses, used various social media platforms to advertise her services. She also happened to be a primate trainer and owner and was involved in various online communities relating to resources about primates and primate ownership.
After the plaintiff came across a disturbing social media page promoting primate abuse, she reported the page to the social media platform, who removed the page. The disturbing page was posted by a social media group that contained several of the defendants in the case. According to the plaintiff, as a result of the removal, the defendants engaged in an extensive social media defamation campaign against the plaintiff. According to the plaintiff’s testimony, among the defendants’ actions were: posting threats against the plaintiff; posting images of the plaintiff, her family, and their home; offering to pay the bail of anyone who entered her business and physically harmed her; and targeting the plaintiff’s social media contacts and encouraging them to remove themselves from the plaintiff’s social media groups.
In addition to the actions above, the plaintiff presented evidence that the defendants made accusations that the plaintiff had been convicted of welfare and check fraud, had been raided by the IRS, and had posted her tax clients’ social security numbers on a social media site. During peak tax season, the defendants sent a news crew to the plaintiff’s place of business to investigate a stolen monkey. The Appellate Court noted that, in fact, the record reflected that the plaintiff purchased a sick monkey from an animal sanctuary for US$5,000 so she could obtain medical care for the monkey after the sanctuary had reached out explaining that it was having difficulty finding medical treatment. The sick monkey had previously been surrendered to the sanctuary by one of the defendants in the case.
At trial, the plaintiff presented evidence that, as a result of the defendants’ defamation campaign, her tax preparation business lost income and she was forced to close one of her three business locations and increase security measures.
In order for a plaintiff to prevail on a defamation claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant (1) published a false statement, (2) that was defamatory concerning the plaintiff, (3) with negligence regarding the truth of the statement (if the plaintiff is a private individual), and (4) the defendant’s actions proximately caused the plaintiff’s damages.
The Appellate Court noted that the defendants’ social media posts were communicated in writing on the plaintiff’s social media pages and were shared and commented on by various other users, which is consistent with the “publication” requirement for defamation. Because this case involved claims that the plaintiff committed a crime, the alleged defamation was characterized as defamation per se, rather than defamation “per quod,” meaning that general damages are presumed without requiring specific evidence of harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. The Appellate Court nonetheless noted that the evidence supported a conclusion that the plaintiff’s business was, in fact, harmed by the defamatory claims. The plaintiff claimed that she lost business and had to close a location and that membership in one of her online social groups dwindled from 700 to 200 members.
Ultimately, the Appellate Court found in favor of the plaintiff and reversed the trial court’s decision to grant the defendants’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. According to the Appellate Court, sufficient evidence was presented at trial to support the jury’s findings.
This case reinforces the idea that social media activity can satisfy the “publication” requirement for defamation and that courts continue to apply legal principles created in a pre-digital age world to the changing technological landscape.