Good Deed Goes Unpunished

There are several interesting philosophical questions that frequently face a defendant in a civil lawsuit: “What happens if I fix the problem that the plaintiff is complaining about?” “Is taking corrective action admitting that I did something wrong in the first place?” “But if I don’t fix it, can I ultimately be liable for even more damages than the plaintiff originally seeks?” “Why am I talking to myself?” A recent California case sheds a little light on all of the above questions except for the last one.

Turan Petroleum sued its former employee, Yuri Vanetik. Turan’s complaint accused Vanetik of committing fraud while he worked as a manager for Turan. Hart Energy Publishing wrote a blurb summarizing the lawsuit for its gas and oil industry website. Even though the court dismissed the lawsuit, Hart’s article remained on its Web site. At the request of Vanetik’s attorneys, Hart removed the article. Several months later, the article reappeared after Hart restored power following an outage. Hart again removed the article.

Vanetik sued Hart. Vanetik argued that Hart’s voluntary removal of the article was an admission that the piece defamed Vanetik. This was not a winning strategy on appeal. In the first place, Vanetik didn’t make that argument at trial, which means he couldn’t bring it up for the first time on appeal. But second, the appellate court found the implications of the argument troubling. According to the court, “Vanetik’s argument would mean that any act undertaken by anyone is an admission that their previous act or omission was wrongful.”

Bottom line? You don’t need to fall on your sword just because someone sues you. But at the same time, deciding to remove the content doesn’t get you in any worse trouble. And there’s really no need to talk to yourself.