Ben Gal Wins Libel Suit
Sarah Jones, a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader received an $11 million judgment in a libel suit against Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, which runs a Web site called thedirty.com. The site posted information that indicated Ms. Jones had had sexual relationships with several Bengal players and had two sexually transmitted diseases. The $11 million judgment includes $1 million for compensatory damages and $10 million for punitive damages. Lots of interesting aspects to this:
- Ms. Jones did not lose her job as a teacher in Northern Kentucky nor as a Ben Gal. So how did she recover $1 million in compensatory damages? Certain statements are legally considered “libel per se.” These statements are of such a nature that a court can presume that the victim’s reputation was damaged, even if there is no “out of pocket” loss. Saying that someone has an STD is libel per se (although the legal treatises usually call it a “loathsome disease”). In addition Ms. Jones filed a document with the court that described her mental distress over the situation.
- The $11 million award is a default judgment. Which means Dirty World didn’t file an answer or otherwise do anything to defend itself in the suit. Dirty World may believe the Kentucky federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction over it, and that may be the case. But the federal rules allow a defendant in that position to make a “limited appearance” to assert that defense. I’m not real sure why Dirty World didn’t do that here. I suppose that is the $11 million question.
- Finally, it appears that the libelous statements were contained in third party postings on thedirty.com site. Which means that Dirty World, as the site operator, would not be deemed the publisher of those statements under the federal Communications Decency Act. And that means that Dirty World would basically be immune from the libel claim. But to take advantage of that defense you have to, you know, show up.
I’m not sure if this is the end of the story. Ms. Jones’ lawyer still has to collect on the judgment, so there will be surely be additional battles. And given the way the legal system can drag, I suspect the NFL playoffs will finish well before this does.