Texas couple awarded $13 million in Web defamation case

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on April 23, 2012 at 5:41 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 25 at 3:06 AM

DALLAS - A Texas couple was awarded more than $13 million in a defamation case that raised questions about what people can say online.

"It’s pretty significant," said Dallas-based cyber attorney Peter Vogel, who is not involved in the case. "People cannot hide behind the First Amendment and say anything they want."

A Tarrant County jury awarded Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville, Texas, the sum on Friday after the couple filed a lawsuit against people writing anonymous, hurtful comments about them online.

“This vindicates us,” Mark Lesher told the Texarkana Gazette on Friday. “This is vindication for all the scurrilous, vile, defamatory statements that caused us… to move out of town and my wife to lose her business.”

The decision by a jury in the 348th District Court in Fort Worth was made against Jerry Coyel, his wife, Shannon, and one of their employees.

In 2008, Shannon Coyel accused the Leshers of sexual assault at their East Texas ranch. The next year, a Collin County jury acquitted the Leshers of all charges.

Online, however, the case seemed to never end. Hundreds of comments on the web forum, Topix.com, were made against the Leshers. A steady stream of false attacks filled message boards.

The Leshers filed a lawsuit and got a judge to order Topix to release the Internet addresses of 178 anonymous posters. One of those IP addresses went back to a Fort Worth salvage yard owned by the Coyels.

Neither the Coyels nor their attorneys returned multiple calls from News 8.

In 2009, Jerry Coyel admitted to ABCNews.com he might have posted on Topix, but emphasized that he used his name and did not post anything inflammatory.

“I believe I’d gone on there one time. I’m not positive about it,” he said three years ago. “It’s a freedom of speech blog.”

Freedom of speech, however, doesn’t apply to libelous statements. Vogel says opinions are okay, but people cannot write hurtful lies about individuals.

“Individuals are not free to say whatever they want anonymously on the Internet without some liability if they slander somebody,” he said.

Internet providers often can trace IP (Internet protocol) addresses to computers, although not necessarily to specific users.

“More than half the time, I would say, in these types of cases the identity of the person doing the anonymous post is identified,” Vogel said.

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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