(CN) - A telephone company cannot punt liability for a settlement it reached with an underage girl who met men on a chat line and was raped by them when they later met in person, the 1st Circuit ruled.
The girl and her father had accused RNK Telecom of facilitating a sexual assault by failing to follow state laws meant to protect minors using the telephone.
In 1999, one year after the New York Public Service Commission issued a regulatory order to block chat line numbers, RNK and Ripple Communications entered into a contract to provide chat services to customers.
Under the contract, Ripple agreed to indemnify RNK and hold harmless from and against any of its customers' damage claims that were associated with Ripple equipment, marketing and content.
After the girl was sexually assaulted, she and her adoptive father sued the Massachusetts-based carrier, claiming that RNK violated New York telephone regulations by not assigning blockable numbers to chat lines.
"A major consideration [for New York] in adopting this order was the desire to protect minors by providing end-users the ability to block the completion of telephonic communications," according to the Boston-based federal appeals panel.
As a result of RNK's alleged negligence, the girl said she improperly accessed a chat line through which she met her attackers.
The state commission found that RNK apparently did violate the regulation and threatened a penalty for the infraction.
RNK admitted that it failed to comply with the regulation, settled the sexual assault victim's lawsuit through its insurer and then sought compensation from Ripple and its insurance provider, Farmers Insurance Exchange.
In Massachusetts District Court, RNK argued that Ripple and Farmers were liable under the content indemnification provision of their contract. They claimed that "content" includes conversations held on the chat line, including the conversation that led to a girl being attacked.
Ripple and Farmers contended that the RNK had suffered the consequences of its own negligence.
A federal judge agreed and dismissed RNK's suit through summary judgment, and the three-judge appeals panel upheld the ruling on Jan. 21.
"We find that the indemnification obligation ... unambiguously relates to claims specifically caused by Ripple's tangible equipment located in RNK's premises and does not encompass all claims that can somehow be traced back to the existence of Ripple's chat lines," Judge Juan Torruella wrote for the court. "Such conversations may not reasonably be considered Ripple's 'content' within the meaning of the agreement. RNK does not point to any evidence in the record that leads to a different result."
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