Record $13.7 Million Award for Internet Libel

     FORT WORTH (CN) – A Tarrant County jury awarded an attorney and his wife $13.7 million from online tormentors who falsely accused them of rape, drug dealing and molestation.



     The jury ruled for Mark and Rhonda Lesher in a libel complaint against 178 unknown Internet users, which was narrowed down to Shannon Coyel, Gerald Coyel, Charlie Doescher and Pat Doescher of Kennedale, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
     Meagan Hassan, the couple’s attorney, told the Star-Telegram that the judgment set a record for Internet libel.
     “This was clearly a vendetta,” Hassan told the newspaper.
     The lawsuit stated that Shannon Coyel was a former client of Mark Lesher, and accused the couple and an employee of sexually assaulting her while he was practicing in Clarksville in East Texas.
     The criminal trial was moved to Collin County due to pretrial publicity. The defendants were acquitted in January 2009.
     Defamatory statements about the Leshers and their businesses then appeared on Topix, an Internet 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 and 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.
     Hassan told the newspaper that Topix fought a subpoena for the Internet Protocol addresses of the people posting comments about the Leshers at first, but a judge forced the company to hand over the information.

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