Two recent cases are vivid reminders that blogging can be dangerous. Bloggers are being found legally accountable and financially liable for their online postings. The take-away is clear: bloggers, beware: what you write can get you sued, or disbarred.

Blogger Found Liable for $600,000 in Defamation Case

 A libel lawsuit was filed in Georgia by a former county Board of Commissioners chairman, Richard C. Wolfe, against county resident and local blogger, Ron McClellan, based upon insults and accusations of embezzlement, fraud and corruption made against Wolfe. The accusations were made by McClellan while blogging on a local citizens’ Facebook page and in the comments section of a local newspaper website.

To prove libel under Georgia law, Wolfe had to show that McClellan made his comments with “actual malice,” meaning that either he knew that the statements were untrue, or that he published them with “reckless regard” for whether the comments were true or not.

After filing the libel lawsuit, Wolfe provided McClellan with more than 1,700 personal records, including bank statements, tax returns and other personal financial documents. However, McClellan did not enter a single document into evidence as proof of his claims. As a result, plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the judge to dismiss the case. Mr. McClellan filed a brief opposition to the summary judgment motion. Thereafter, the trial judge ruled that McClellan had made his comments with “reckless disregard of whether such statements were false or not.” This ruling left the jury to determine only the amount of damages to be awarded, and the jury awarded $600,000 to Wolfe.

The case was reported in the LaGrange Daily News, and on the Blog Law Online blog.

The Judge’s decision granting Wolfe’s motion for summary judgment is annexed here – Wolfe v. McClellan

Attorney Grievance Filed Against Blogging Lawyer

This case involves a Michigan lawyer, Steven Gursten, who specializes in representing accident victims.   On November 13, 2014, attorney Gursten published a blog post in which he identified Dr. Rosalind Griffin, a Michigan psychiatrist who testifies as a medical expert, as one of the “notorious” Michigan doctors who, he said, is known to aid the defense. Gursten asked readers to decide whether Dr. Griffin perjured herself based on several detailed examples from transcripts of her testimony in his cases which he posted online on his blog.

Dr. Griffin filed a grievance against attorney Gursten in 2015. In her grievance, Dr. Griffin claimed that the blog post constituted “conduct [that] involves dishonesty and misrepresentations which reflect adversely on his honest, trustworthiness and fitness as a lawyer,” and also that the blog post was “prejudicial to the administration of justice” in that it portrayed the legal system in a bad light. The grievance is now pending.

For those readers involved in blogging, there are several helpful online legal guides. The one I like the best is the Legal Guide for Bloggers by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which can be found here:

The bottom line is this: Although the main legal liability issues for bloggers include defamation, Intellectual Property (Copyright/Trademark) infringement, trade secret infringement, and invasion of privacy, in our litigious society, “there are many ‘causes of action’ — reasons for initiating a lawsuit — which a creative and determined plaintiff can dream up.” (EFF) So, be careful out there.

More information about the Gursten case can be found on the Consumer Law and Policy Blog.

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