$200,000 Defamation Award Upheld on Appeal
(CN) - An Arizona couple is entitled to a $200,000 judgment from a couple who accused them online of child molestation, an Arizona appeals court ruled.
David Brown and Mindy Larue had two children before they divorced in 2006. After the divorce, David married Sarah and Mindy married Jeremy Tucker.
The Browns initiated a criminal investigation of Tucker, alleging that he had abused one of the children. During a hearing to modify custody, the family court ruled that the Browns did not prove the allegations.
In 2008, Sarah Brown posted allegations of sexual and criminal misconduct against Larue and Tucker on a website called ripoffreport.com.
Sarah called Larue a "despicable mother" who allowed Tucker to abuse Larue's daughter. Sarah stated that Tucker "molested and tortured" the girl and that he "could be working at your business or company or on nearby building projects. BEWARE," according to the appeals court's summary.
Two days later, Sarah posted another article calling Tucker "a sick sick pedophile" who touched the private parts of his girlfriend's 4-year-old daughter and put "Tabasco sauce in her panties."
Readers commented on the story in 2009. One asked why the abuse hadn't been reported and another called the story "100 percent fake," stating that the biological father was "just trying to get back at his ex-wife."
The Browns responded to the comments, stating that the child had reported the abuse, that Tucker had refused to take a polygraph test, and that David was not seeking retribution against his ex-wife.
Larue and Tucker sued the Browns for defamation and won $150,000 in compensatory damages against the Browns and $50,000 in punitive damages against Sarah Brown.
The Browns appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs' claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
But the Arizona Court of Appeals District One upheld the lower court's ruling, noting that the plaintiffs would have run out of time to file their lawsuit if the Browns' hadn't responded to the online comments.
"Defendants' 'updates and rebuttals' were posted immediately below the text of the original articles, and the content of defendants' replies referred to and re-alleged the substance of the original articles," Judge Andrew W. Gould wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
Since the Browns responded to the comments in June 2009, Gould said, the plaintiffs' lawsuit was not too late when it was filed in December 2009.