San Francisco Personal Injury Lawsuit Runs into Internet Law

In a case that grabbed the attention of every internet company that deals in user-generated content, Dawn Hassell, a San Francisco lawyer representing the plaintiff in a slip-and-fall personal injury case, ended up bringing a libel lawsuit against her client.  The lawsuit should warm the heart of anyone who has been unfairly smeared on online review websites like Yelp.com, but the internet companies were enraged.

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During the 25-day lawyer-client relationship, Hassell’s client missed a key appointment and failed to return the firm’s emails and phone calls. Hassell sent Bird a polite email withdrawing from the case and advising her to find another lawyer. A few months later, the client posted an attack on Hassell on Yelp accusing her of incompetence and more. Hassel won a libel judgment worth more than $550,000 and an injunction ordering the client to remove the posted review from Yelp, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Yelp appealed the ruling, claiming it is legally immune from liability for what its users post on its review pages under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers that host user comments. A California appeals court upheld the ruling, however, and Yelp has now appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the case became a cause célèbre among internet giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Pinterest, many smaller websites, Internet law professors, and online and traditional news organizations.   In an amicus letter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter asserted that user-generated content, including individual reviews, comments, Facebook posts, tweets and more, is essential to “how modern society communicates.” The tech community considers Section 230 to be “the backbone of the Internet,” said Yelp’s appellate lawyer.

An amicus letter from 13 law professors declares, “A newspaper can not be ordered to take down an allegedly libelous comment, without having notice and an opportunity to be heard.” The internet companies’ First Amendment rights are separate from the suppliers of content: “It is why a bookstore cannot be ordered to remove an allegedly obscene book, and an art gallery cannot be ordered to remove an allegedly obscene painting” without a hearing.

The internet companies’ lawyers say they are optimistic that the California Supreme Court will throw out the appellate rule.  The Court has previously agreed that creators of offending material in defamation cases are the only parties who may be “punished and deterred.”  However, warned Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, “That ruling is 10 years old, Section 230 is still under assault, and … the state Supreme Court could wield outsized influence on the future of the Web. Online publishers are very nervous, and they may have reason to be.”

Craig Follis has extensive experience in litigation, negotiating and settling suits, and providing legal opinions on liability and insurance coverage. You can reach him at (888) 703-0109 or via email at cfollis@lawyersva.com.

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