Record Libel Award Gone as Fast as It Came

     FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) - A judge has thrown out the record $13.7 million jury award to a lawyer and his wife who said they were falsely accused of sexual perversion, molestation and drug dealing in more than 25,000 online postings.
     There was no evidence to support the April 2012 verdict for Mark and Rhonda Lesher, according to the brief two-page decision.
     Tarrant County District Judge Dana Womack also entered summary judgment notwithstanding the verdict for the defendants, Shannon Coyel, Gerald Coyel, Charlie Doescher and Pat Doescher, of Kennedale. This means the Coyels and the Doeschers will recover court costs, while the Leshers get nothing.
     The Coyels and the Doeschers had claimed that the Leshers failed to ever enter a single, complete statement of fact. They also said there was no evidence that any of them published a statement of fact.
     "If the court were to assume that the plaintiffs properly, and completely, admitted statements of fact via [an exhibit], the plaintiffs failed to prove that the defendants published those alleged statements," their motion states. "In fact, a careful review of [the exhibit] will show the IP address allegedly tied to Gerald and Shannon Coyel's home is nowhere to be found."
     The motion also disputes whether evidence supports awards for mental anguish, injury to reputation or lost profits claimed for Rhonda Lesher's beauty salon.
     Meagan Hassan, the Leshers' attorney, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in April the judgment was a record for Internet libel.
     "This was clearly a vendetta," Hassan said.
     Attorney Mark Lesher had claimed that he once represented Shannon Coyel while he was practicing in Clarksville in East Texas. In January 2009, After Shannon Coyel allegedly accused the Leshers and an employee of sexually assaulting her, a jury acquitted the trio of the charges.
     But the Leshers said defamatory statements about them and their businesses kept appearing on Topix, an online community bulletin board.
     Hassan told the Star-Telegram that she and her legal partners compiled more than 25,000 libelous online posts that accused her clients of engaging in sexual perversion, molestation, drug dealing and other criminal behavior. She said they introduced only 800 of the worst posts in court.
     "No one who has ever read the comments has argued that they were reasonable or rational," Hassan said. "This is a good case to show just how bad things can get online."
     The Leshers said the abuse was so bad that they closed their businesses and moved from Clarksville, their home for more than two decades. Mark Lesher now practices law in Mount Pleasant and Texarkana, and Rhonda Lesher gave up her salon, the Star-Telegram reported.