Couple awarded $13 million in defamation case say laws must change

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on April 27, 2012 at 11:44 PM

DALLAS - A Texas couple who was awarded more than $13 million in a landmark Internet defamation case says the laws governing cyber smearing need to be changed.

“There needs to be some new legislation,” Rhonda Lesher told News 8. “Something has got to be done so the common person can go to your law enforcement and your law enforcement will do something.”

She and her husband, Mark, have been fighting for years to clear their digital reputation. Even after spending hundreds of thousands dollars and winning a judgment, Rhonda Lesher still shudders every time she does a quick Internet search of her name.

“You just go to Google… and it’s there,” she said. “I quit saying, 'I’m Rhonda Lesher,' because I was scared somebody was going to Google me.”

She and her husband would like the smut removed, or at least pushed to the back of search results. The Leshers do feel their reputation is slowly being restored.

Yet, they admit it was a very difficult fight - harder than they say it should have been.

“We wanted to get to the bottom of it!" Mrs. Lesher said. "We wanted to clear our name. We wanted to reestablish our reputation, which had been absolutely destroyed.”

It started in 2008, when Shannon Coyel, an acquaintance in their small East Texas town of Clarksville, accused the Leshers of sexual assault at their sprawling 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 calling them “rapists” and “child molesters.”

Their small town’s gossip mill exploded. Rhonda Lesher said she was forced to close her salon. Mark Lesher, a local attorney, said he lost clients.

The trial set off such a stir, the couple moved out of rural Clarksville, population 3,500.

“It was a horrific deal," Mr. Lesher said. "I lost a lot of business. You can be found not guilty in a court of law, but you still have that stamp of ‘maybe.’”

Fed up with the constant attacks online, 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. A jury in the 348th District Court in Fort Worth ruled against against Jerry Coyel, his wife, Shannon, and one of their employees.

The three of them were ordered to pay the Leshers $13.75 million in damages.

“We were shocked - shocked!” Mrs. Lesher said. “We hadn’t asked for that much money.”

Yet, the lawsuit was draining.

The Leshers’ legal bills soared above $250,000. The couple sold their 1,700-acre ranch to pay for their team of attorneys. Convincing the web sites to reveal identifying information about their users took years of legal maneuvering.

“It’s very, very difficult,” Mr. Lesher said. “We had to do all this in California. You’re talking about lots of money… It needs to be easier to find out these people who post defamatory statements.”

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. Dallas-based cyber attorney Peter Vogel, who is not involved in the case, said 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,” Vogel said, “the identity of the person doing the anonymous post is identified.”

The Leshers would like Internet defamation to become a crime. They know most people cannot afford to launch the fight they did.

“Thank goodness we had a ranch we could sell,” said Mrs. Lesher. “We were so determined we would have spent every dime that we had.”

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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