OD Blamed on Drugs Bought From Topix.com

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – Parents claim in court that their son died of an overdose of oxycodone he bought from a dealer through Topix, “the Internet’s most prominent bazaar for trafficking in illegal drugs.”
     Steven and Laura Witkoff sued Topix and Daniel Park for the wrongful death of their son, Andrew Witkoff, in Superior Court.
     Andrew was 22 when he died of “an accidental overdose of oxycodone” on Aug. 14, 2011, the parents say in the lawsuit.
     Topix is a Delaware LLC that operates out of Palo Alto, the parents say in the lawsuit.
     “Daniel Park is a drug dealer, who made contact with Andrew Witkoff through defendants’ website, Topix.com, and Park sold to Andrew Witkoff the drugs that killed him,” according to the complaint. The parents say Park is older than 18 and lives in Los Angeles County.
     The Witkoffs say in the lawsuit that Andrew bought drugs from Park “through defendants’ website, Topix.com, the Internet’s most prominent bazaar for trafficking in illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine, oxycodone and many others.”
     “Andrew Witkoff struggled with drug addiction for years prior to his death,” the complaint states. “In March 2011, with plaintiffs’ consent and approval, Andrew entered a drug treatment program in Los Angeles, California, and had graduated to residence at a ‘half-way house’ facility in the weeks prior to his death … . Unfortunately, the drug treatment center failed to monitor Andrew’s internet use, and data extracted from his computer and/or phone after his death indicates that Andrew used Topix.com to locate potential drug sellers on several occasions prior to his death.”
     Seven days before he died, the Witkoffs say, Andrew did a Google search to find someone selling oxycodone in Los Angeles.
     “In response to this search request, Google immediately steered Andrew Witkoff to Topix.com. Google’s reference to Topix.com was not identical: the site was, in fact, Google’s top-ranked result for the search. He read the oxy thread and discovered that Park had been selling oxycodone illegally for months through that website, and that not a single person had ever complained about the drugs Park was selling illegally. Andrew posted his email address in the oxy thread, so that Park could receive and read his message, make contact with Andrew, and sell Andrew the drugs which ultimately took his life. Topix, Does and the defendants and each of them therefore knowingly facilitated the sale of illegal drugs to Andrew Witkoff, and thereby created a public nuisance in violation of California Civil Code § 3479,” the complaint states.
     Topix, a news site founded in 2002, describes itself as “the leading news community on the Web, connecting 12.4 million people (comScore, Jan. 2013) to the information and discussions that matter to them in every U.S. town and city,” according to the complaint. (Parentheses in complaint.)
     The Witkoffs claim that though people may use Topix for “legitimate purposes, Topix undeniably knows, or has reason to know, that Topix.com is also extensively used for trafficking in illegal drugs and controlled substances.”
     They claim that Topix enables drug dealers to set up anonymous accounts and sell illegal drugs through the forums because Topix “makes no effort to evaluate the accuracy” of the information people submit to create a user profile.
     “Topix and Does and the other defendants and each of them are not only well aware of the extensive use of the website made by drug traffickers, they are completely indifferent to the public menace their site poses,” the complaint states.
     The Witkoffs claim that Topix has the ability to control the content on its site because its staff can “read, edit and search user-submitted content to its forums,” use software to find and delete inappropriate posts, and use spam blockers to “prevent inappropriate content from being posted in the first place. However, an inspection of Topix.com’s drug-related forums conclusively demonstrates that Topix either declines to use such programs, or that its use of them is, by design, completely ineffectual. The manner in which Topix operates its website, knowing the extent to which it is used by drug traffickers to commit crimes, reflects its unconscionable disregard for public health and safety,” the parents say in the lawsuit.
     The Witkoffs claim that “Topix knowingly, willfully and intentionally turns [a] blind eye toward illegal drug activity it knows to be occurring on its website” because it makes money selling ads, and needs to attract new visitors “because those visitors create additional ad impressions for its advertisers.”
     They claim that with “a simple search … or only a few clicks of a mouse, through Topix.com anyone seeking to buy illegal drugs or controlled substances can almost instantaneously get in touch with someone willing to sell them virtually any substance they desire.”
     The parents claim that Topix users create discussion threads seeking to sell or buy drugs, to which others can respond. When a buyer and seller make contact, they can negotiate through the site’s private message function. Drug buyers post evaluations of dealers on the forums, alerting other buyers to good dealers or warning buyers to stay away from dealers who do not deliver the drugs or sell low-quality product, according to the complaint.
     “Thus, Topix.com, Does and the other defendants … enables and encourages drug traffickers, and buyers and sellers of illegal drugs and controlled substances, to identify, locate and communicate directly with each other for the purpose of conducting their unlawful activity, and even obtain feedback … Moreover, when creating these threads on Topix.com, these buyers and sellers of illegal drugs or controlled substances apparently feel free to openly discuss their illicit activities, aware, or at least confident, either that Topix, Does and the other defendants, do not monitor their communications, or that even if defendants do, that no adverse action will be taken against them,” the complaint states.
     “Although … Topix reserves the right to edit or remove content, this reservation of rights is illusory and nothing more than a meaningless façade. Rather than actually exercising the rights Topix supposedly reserved to itself for the protection of the public, Topix has knowingly, willfully and intentionally elected not to exercise those rights by, among other things, removing any of the drug-trafficking-related threads or posts referred to above, at least as of the date of this complaint. The Does and other defendants herein have acted in concert with Topix in the foregoing, by doing nothing to alleviate this situation.”
     The Witkoffs claim their son would not have been able to buy the drugs that killed him had Topix fulfilled its duty to protect users, and removed drug trafficking content from its site.
     They seek punitive damages for wrongful death and nuisance.
     They are represented by Todd E. Croutch with Fonda & Fraser of Glendale.
     Emails to Topix seeking comment were not immediately returned.

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