Category: Tort Law

24

Can You Be Sued for Unmasking an Anonymous Blogger?

mask1A model named Liskula Cohen was being attacked on a blog called Skanks in NYC.  The author of the Skanks blog was anonymous.  Kashmir Hill reports:

Cohen started pursuing the defamation suit against the anonymous ‘Skanks’ blogger in January after discovering the site, on which the blogger called Cohen a skank, a ho, and an old hag, among other nasty things, and posted photos of her, taken from various websites. Since Cohen needed the identity of the blogger in order to file the lawsuit against her, a judge in Manhattan granted Cohen’s request to force Google to reveal the e-mail address and IP address of the alleged defamer.

Cohen has since dropped her $3 million lawsuit.  The unmasked blogger — Rosemary Port — plans to sue Google for $15 million for breaching its fiduciary duty to defend her anonymity.

Over at CyberSLAPP, a website maintained by EFF (disclosure: I’m on EFF’s advisory board), ACLU, CDT, EPIC, and Public Citizen, they have posted documents from the case, including the court’s order to Google to unmask the author of Skanks.

CyberSLAPP seeks to combat frivolous lawsuits to reveal another’s identity:

CyberSLAPP cases typically involve a person who has posted anonymous criticisms of a corporation or public figure on the Internet. The target of the criticism then files a frivolous lawsuit just so they can issue a subpoena to the Web site or Internet Service Provider (ISP) involved, discover the identity of their anonymous critic, and intimidate or silence them.

The Skanks in NYC raises a lot of interesting issues.  I’ll tackle a few in this post.

1.Was Cohen’s lawsuit frivolous? Cohen might have a decent defamation lawsuit, but she subsequently dropped it when she found out Cohen’s identity.  This behavior indicates she was using the lawsuit only to unmask the blogger.  I agree with CyberSLAPP that such a practice should be restricted.

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10

Traditional v. Economic Analysis

wise-teachingsTo debate over traditional versus economic analysis in law (aka as fairness v. welfare, deontology v. efficiency and normative v. utilitarian), in the coming law review submission season, I’ll submit evidence from torts opinions of Judges Benjamin Cardozo and Richard Posner (I reported other aspects of this research here and here).

Proponents of economic analysis offer to show law’s efficiency as a descriptive matter and many prescribe its use, especially in tort law, where such analysis is most successful. Skeptics question the method’s descriptive accuracy and normative appeal, compared to traditional legal analysis, also making particular contributions to tort law.

While scholars use theoretical, philosophical and doctrinal techniques to defend positions, my new Article’s novel evaluation considers how the methods fare in opinions of two judicial exemplars of the contending conceptions: Cardozo, quintessential traditionalist, and Posner, avatar economist.

Comparative analysis of those opinions, the most ubiquitous in current Torts casebooks, provides evidence that traditional legal analysis is a more capacious and persuasive basis of justification than contemporary economic analysis of law. Selections from my Article’s Introduction follow.

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0

More on Cardozo/Posner Torts Opinions

Further to my polling inquiry on Cardozo and Posner Torts opinions, the following list includes notes to evoke their context or signifiance.  (Thanks to the several comments on that post; I doubt I’ll prepare the multiple choice quiz on these cases that one kindly suggested, though the following can be used to check answers other comments offered.) Read More

4

Poll on Famous Torts Cases and Judges

cardozo

Would readers take a quick poll on famous torts cases and judges stemming from my work “Cardozo and Posner: A Study in Torts” (noted here and here)?    Those judges are the first and second most consequential on tort law measured by opinion frequency in 20 current Torts casebooks.  Both are legendary judges with particular recognition in the law of torts.  

Cardozo’s torts opinions are canonical: 10 appear in the books, 7 in at least 1/4 of them, and all but 1 appear in at least 3 books.  Posner’s opinions enjoy more sporadic interest: 25 opinions appear in the books, only 2 in at least 1/4 of them, and 20 appear in only 1 or 2 books.  

My analysis inter-acts these opinions, in their practical, theoretical and pedagogical contexts, to hypothesize explanations for this differential status.  A simplified version of the thesis: Cardozo’s traditional doctrinalism, supplemented using old-fashioned rhetoric, wins out over Posner’s contemporary economic supplementation of legal reasoning.  posner2

Out of curiosity, I list below the 10 Cardozo opinions and a sampling of Posner opinions and wonder if readers would comment whether they recognize the opinions and, if so, what stands out about them.

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4

Barnes v. Yahoo!, CDA Immunity, and Promissory Estoppel

yahooThe Ninth Circuit recently decided Barnes v. Yahoo!, a case with some very interesting holdings relating to the Communications Decency Act § 230 as well as promissory estoppel.  I wrote about this case briefly in my book, The Future of Reputation, long before it made it up to the Ninth Circuit.

Celia Barnes’ ex-boyfriend created fake profiles in her name on Yahoo.  Moreover, as the court relates:

The profiles contained nude photographs of Barnes and her boyfriend, taken without her knowledge, and some kind of open solicitation, whether express or implied is unclear, to engage in sexual intercourse. The ex-boyfriend then conducted discussions in Yahoo’s online “chat rooms,” posing as Barnes and directing male correspondents to the fraudulent profiles he had created. The profiles also included the addresses, real and electronic, and telephone number at Barnes’ place of employment. Before long, men whom Barnes did not know were peppering her office with emails, phone calls, and personal visits, all in the expectation of sex.

Barnes contacted Yahoo to get the profiles taken down:

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18

Let Private Lawyers, Not Police, Govern Cellphone Use While Driving

12-21-07-driving_talking1Will Saletan argues that some local government will soon ban possessing cellphones in the car.  Shorter Saletan:  “first, they came for the train conductors.”

Having just been ticketed by the Cornell police for driving while talking on a cellphone, I’m particular aware of the growth of anti-cellphone laws.  (A side note: NY has a bizarre system of indeterminate fines that aren’t reduced to a sum until after you plead guilty to the offense.  To the extent that this post is read by a municipal judge in Ithaca, I’d ask for mercy.)   But the trend against cellphones should be resisted: we should regulate cellphone-motivated accidents through the private-party negligence regime, not the police-directed traffic liability system.

Deciding which traffic laws to enforce solely through private party lawsuits is a knotty problem, but I think the answer relates to the imposition of strict liability more generally.  When an activity is unreasonably dangerous (drunk driving) and has little to no desirable social consequences, we make it unlawful even in the absence of harm to others.  By contrast, when an activity has both positive and negative social consequences – like long road trips – we punish negligence (nodding at the wheel) only when leads to an accident.

Is cellphone possession and use so unreasonably dangerous, and so without public benefit, that we ought to treat it like drunk driving?  Saletan thinks so, and cites a study that finds drivers equally distracted when drunk as when talking on the phone.  (Not equally dangerous, which is what Saletan says the study claims.)  And I’ll admit that there’s no reason not to force people to use hands-free devices.

But many things can distract drivers.  Should we prohibit passengers?  Especially younger ones, who sometimes have the habit of fighting in the back seat?  How about radio? I’d be curious to see an experiment that compares people listening to Rush or Stern to those who are drunk.  Those guys can really suck you in!

Moreover, cellphone use while driving permits important social benefits.  It boosts productivity by decreasing time wasted in traffic.  A rule that prohibited cellphone use, instead of forcing drivers to merely internalize the cost of use by making them liable for negligent driving, would chill conduct that we want to encourage.  It would also significantly increase the costs of commuting, as individuals will once again have no recourse but to listen to the radio or hum quietly to themselves.  So we should instead permit people to hold, and use, cellphones while driving.  If they hit another driver or cause damage to another’s property, however, we should treat cellphone use as prima facie evidence of negligence.

6

Presidential Right of Publicity

There was an article yesterday about the company that sells the “Chia Obama,” which is like the “Chia Pet” that you slather with seeds and then water to make a boring ceramic figure look slightly less boring. (As I tell my intellectual property students, not all lucrative inventions are complex. Go ask the inventor of the pet rock.) The news was the Chia Obama was pulled from stores because the firm concluded that the product was inappropriate for its image.

This raises a broader question, which is to what extent, if at all, can the President control the use of his image for commercial purposes. Traditionally, politicians have operated on the assumption that there is no such thing as overexposure. Teddy Roosevelt was famous for delighting in the appearance of his likeness on all sorts of goods, culminating with the borrowing of his name for the teddy bear. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the Obama Administration told Bloomberg News in February: “Our lawyers are working on developing a policy that will protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president.”

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24

Should We Have Professional Juries?

jury2.jpgAccording to Legal Profession Blog:

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed an $876,000 plaintiff’s verdict in a slip-and-fall case where the plaintiff had fallen while looking for pantyhose in aisle five of a supermarket owned by the defendant. . . . [T]he jury foreperson was a New Jersey State Senator, full-time law professor and lawyer who had published an article in the New Jersey Law Journal about his experiences serving as a juror. The defendant contended that the article “disclosed that he improperly influenced the jurors and that there was apparent misunderstanding of the jury charges.”

The court’s opinion is here. The article by the law professor — Robert Martin of Seton Hall Law School (who is also a New Jersey state senator) is in the New Jersey Law Journal and requires a subscription to access it.

What should one conclude from this case?

The reaction many would have is that it was unwise to put a law professor on the jury. Shouldn’t one expect when a law professor or lawyer is on the jury that he or she will have significant influence? If you put a bunch of people in a airplane cockpit, none of whom know how to fly a plane, along with a pilot, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the people might want to consult with the pilot! As my colleague Jonathan Turley writes in his blog: “Martin’s article is a perfect example why some of us oppose lawyers sitting as jurors. It is a terrible practice that encourages undue influence by a single juror in deliberations.”

But there’s another lesson to be learned from this case. We should have professional juries. I’m increasingly of the opinion that our jury system is a joke. Consider some of the very thoughtful points Professor Martin wrote in his article about his experiences:

I became acutely aware that jurors are not generally permitted to ask questions during trial (except through written request). . . .

Additionally, jurors are usually prohibited from taking notes. . . .

In preparation of our deliberation, the judge gave us detailed instructions, which in this case lasted about an hour. These instructions amounted to a mini-course in tort law, similar in content to what some law students have trouble absorbing over the course of a full semester. Although the judge read from carefully prepared notes, we again were prevented from taking our own notes (but reminded that we must closely follow all of the instructions).

The process which Martin describes (and which indeed is quite common) is ridiculous is so many ways. First, it is ridiculous that juries are basically taught the law after hearing the facts of the case. If one is applying a rule, shouldn’t one know about the rule first in order to determine which facts are relevant and which are not?

Second, it takes law students three years to learn the law — or at least a semester to learn a specific subject like torts — and yet juries are expected to understand the law after just one brief lecture from the judge. Who are we kidding when we think that the jury is really applying the law? Juries probably have little to no idea about what the law is.

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2

Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability

freespeech3.jpgWhen does civil liability for speech trigger First Amendment protections?

Recently, Professor Neil Richards and I posted on SSRN our new article exploring this question: Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability, 109 Columbia Law Review (forthcoming 2009).

Surprising, the issue of when civil liability for speech triggers First Amendment scrutiny is governed by two totally contradictory rules. Since New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment applies to tort liability for speech, including defamation and invasion of privacy.

But in other contexts, the First Amendment does not apply to liability for speech. According to Cohen v. Cowles, there is no First Amendment scrutiny for speech restricted by promissory estoppel and contract. The First Amendment rarely requires scrutiny when property rules restrict speech.

In a large range of situations, however, these rules collide. Tort, contract, and property law overlap to a substantial degree, so formalistic distinctions between areas of law will not adequately resolve when the First Amendment should apply to civil liability.

This conflict is vividly illustrated by the law of confidentiality. We pose the following hypothetical in the article:

Suppose an attorney representing a client in a highly-publicized case discloses the client’s confidential information. The client sues under the breach of confidentiality tort. The attorney claims that she was engaging in free speech and that the First Amendment protects her right of expression. Does the Sullivan or Cohen rule apply? One could argue that the Sullivan rule applies because breach of confidentiality is a tort. On the other hand, breach of confidentiality remedies a contract-like harm. Even if never expressed orally or in writing, an implicit agreement exists between the attorney and client that the attorney will maintain the confidentiality of the client’s information. Perhaps this situation should fall under the Cohen rule because the breach of confidentiality claim more closely resembles an action for promissory estoppel rather than an action for public disclosure of private facts. If this were the case, then the First Amendment would not apply.

In our article, we explore how this problem can be resolved. We survey the way that existing doctrine and theories attempt to address the conflict between the Sullivan and Cohen rules, and we demonstrate why such approaches are lacking. We aim to develop a coherent approach for resolving when the First Amendment applies to civil liability for speech. To find out our solution, take a look at our article and let us know what you think.

23

Stealing Love

Love is a wonderful thing, but sometimes love (or infatuation) leads individuals to engage in behavior that can hurt not only them, but also their families. I am talking about extramarital affairs. Although over 85% of Americans believe that adultery is morally wrong, countless spouses are unfaithful. Last week the NY Times discussed the benefits of an anti-love vaccine which would prevent humans from falling in love with the wrong person (i.e., someone who is committed to another person). While such a drug would do wonders for those who wish to fight the occasional urge to stray, it does little to deter individuals who have no qualms about pursuing someone else’s spouse. The law, however, might already provide a deterrent, albeit a quite controversial one.

A minority of states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah, still recognize a cause of action for alienation of affections against any person who wrongfully interferes with a person’s marriage, thereby causing that person to lose his or her spouse’s affection. Lest you think these causes of action are a thing of the past, this past August, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a $1.5 million verdict against an attorney who had an affair with his client’s wife. The plaintiff, who had hired the attorney in connection with a medical malpractice case, prevailed on his claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and alienation of affections. Further, even after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, some states, including California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, and Virginia, have allowed claims arising from an extramarital affair to be brought against certain professionals, including attorneys, psychiatrists/psychologists, and clergymen providing marital counseling services, on a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress, professional malpractice, negligent counseling, and breach of fiduciary duty. For example, eight years after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a priest who had an affair with the plaintiff’s wife to whom the priest was supposedly providing marriage counseling.

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