Feb 5, 2016

Blogger Loses Libel Case, Owes $600,000

If bloggers and other social media posters need a reminder that they can be held accountable for their online musings, a $600,000 jury verdict against an online poster in Georgia is such an example.

As reported by the LaGrange Daily News, the jury found Ronald J. McClellan liable for comments he posted on this blog and in the comments section of the newspaper's website insulting community activist and then-Troup County Board of Commissioners chairman Richard C. Wolfe, and accusing him of embezzlement, fraud and corruption.

As a public official, 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.

Before the case reached the jury, the judge held that McClellan had made his comments “without one scintilla of evidence,” and that he had thus made them with “reckless disregard of whether such statements were false or not.” This left the jury to determine only the amount of damages to be awarded.

McClellan, who represented himself at trial, said that he will appeal.

In his testimony, McClellan said that he is unemployed and has only $38. Wolfe said that he did not expect to collect the damage award, but that he sued to make a point. But McClellan told the Daily News that he would continue to criticize Wolfe.

While the lesson of the verdict may be lost on the defendant, it does provide a lesson for anyone who posts online: you can be held legally and financially responsible for what you post. Just a friendly reminder....

(h/t MLRC MediaLawDaily)


Ron Mac said...

Hello Mr. Robinson. I am the defendant in the case you wrote about above, Ron McClellan. I assure you, there was no message "lost" on me.

Unfortunately, there are a number of personal connections between the Judge and the plaintiff, not the least of which is that the Plaintiff, Mr. Wolfe, had an attorney who was not only the Judges biggest campaign contributor in the Judges last contested election, he also threw a Fund raising breakfast for the Judge. This is in addition to personal connections between the Judge and Plaintiff himself.

Further, the Plaintiff never came close to meeting the standard of providing clear and convincing evidence I was either lying (I wasn't) or reckless in drawing my conclusions.

I'll point out that Georgia case law makes it clear that a defendant in a lawsuit such as this can be flat out wrong and even negligent in arriving at such conclusions . . . and still not meet the level of being demonstrated to be guilty of Actual Malice, particularly of a public official, and further when it involves matters of public interest.

I am neither wrong, nor was I negligent. I could not "prove" Mr. Wolfe was guilty, but I didn't have to under the laws of Georgia, though that affirmative defense would have been useful if I could have.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

Eric P. Robinson said...

Thank you for your comment. I agree that you likely have a good basis for an appeal. My point (which I've made before on my blog) is that bloggers and social media posters must realize that their posts can subject them to lawsuits and possibly liability.

Ron Mac said...

This was really pretty much a SLAPP action more than anything else. Unfortunately Georgia SLAPP laws are pretty weak and don't have much in the way of teeth.

What bothers me more than being sued and the ridiculous judgment, is the chilling affect this decision can potentially have on public discourse. As Justice Brennan said, this country is supposed to have "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."

We seem to be losing that commitment. My Statements at issue in this lawsuit were 100% tied directly to a matter of public interest. In Judge Kirbys summary ruling against he he took a rather convoluted line of reason in declaring my comments were not about matters of public interest. It wasn't like I was accusing Chairman Wolfe(Plaintiff) of Murdering a lover or Running Puppies through a wood chipper or something.

All comments were directed at his activities as County Commission Chairman and his being Chairman of a 501(c) corporation that took money that passed through the County Commission he chaired. There were (and still remain) a number of red flags that have the appearance of impropriety in this arrangement.

I know I have a good basis for an appeal. My problem is, that the same bumbling "attorney pro se" who lost this totally ridiculous lawsuit, is also the same poor bumbling fool who will be handling my appeal.

Unknown said...

Your defense might be that you were speculating and expressing opinions, but I need to know more about the comments and context. The court said not any "scintilla" of evidence. That suggest you were fabricating information, but were you instead proposing your own theories? To assess your defenses, I would have to know more about what specifically was said and the overall context. Please feel free to contact me. Eric should be able to put us in touch.

Ron Mac said...

I'm really puzzled about the Judges assertion that I presented not "one Scintilla" of evidence in support of my statements. While I had no proof, I did supply evidence that I didn't publish them recklessly. At the time I published my statements at issue, I had done a lot of research, and was "connecting the dots" so-to-speak.

I liken it to a childs "Connect the dots" picture of say, a circus elephant. While I didn't have all the dots connected, I could still make a plausible deduction that the picture was of an elephant.

I actually supplied about 40 pages of evidence. My defense was predicated on demonstrating that I was not reckless in forming my suspicions, even if I couldn't absolutely prove them. Of course if I had concrete proof, I would have filed a formal complaint with the GBI or State Attorneys office.

It appears the judges entire basis on his summary judgment ruling against me was predicated on the fact I couldn't conclusively prove my suspicions. But my position is that all I actually had to demonstrate was that I wasn't reckless. Nothing I submitted was fabricated. I doesn't even really appear the judge reviewed some of the documents as on page two in the footnotes, he referenced one of my exhibits as "Plaintiffs Tax documents of an indeterminable year." Not only where the IRS documents clearly dated at the very top of the page in bold letters, I had also highlighted the dates with a yellow highlighter. And it was 4 years of Plaintiffs 1040, not one year.

Further, Judge Kirby seemed to just dismiss out-of-hand that my comments were made on a matter of public interest, in addition to being about a public official. His line of reason was pretty strange. This isn't simply my opinion, incidentally, an attorney friend of mine(out of state, unfortunately) found the Judges SJ Order just as convoluted and puzzling as I did, particularly the part in his order declaring that my Facebook statements at issue weren't about a matter of public interest, which by any definition they were.

I truly appreciate your interest, I will try to contact you. Perhaps the filings themselves would be more explanatory.

Thank you.

Ron Mac said...

For anyone interested, here is my reply brief to Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment, followed by the Judges Order on the motion, assuming the links work on this comment format. If they don't, you should be able to copy and paste them into your URL bar:

Defendants reply brief:

Judges Order Granting Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment:

Feel free to comment, even if critical. Time is ticking on my appeal (and notice of appeal, so any input I would appreciate, including critical input.

Ron Mac said...

Another concern I have, (of many actually, relative to the way the entire action played out) was in the verdict form given the jury on the 500,000 Punitive Damage verdict.

I don't have it scanned to a file just yet, so I'll type it out. I feel the jurys verdict form should have stated the standard of evidence was to be clear and convincing, not by a preponderance of evidence. Admittedly I may be missing something, as a layman. But here it is:



Please mark the statement that speaks the truth of your verdict:

_____We, the jury, find by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant's libelous statements were made with specific intent to cause harm to the Plaintiff, and impose punitive damages in the amount of $ _____________ [Decided $500,000.00]


____ We, the jury, find by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant's libelous statement were not made with the specific intent to cause harm to the Plaintiff, and impose punitive damages in the amount of $____________, which must be an amount not more than $250,000.00.


_____ We the jury find in favor of the Defendant on the issue of punitive damages.

This____ day of February, 2016 [Feb. 3rd]

Foreperson Signature_______________


Ron Mac said...

If anyone has any thoughts on the links provided or the Punitive Damages Jury Verdict form, I'd be interested in hearing about it. :)

Ron Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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