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More from the "Watch What You Say Online" Department
March 1, 2002 6:30 AM   Subscribe

More from the "Watch What You Say Online" Department This Wired story mentions a fellow who badmouthed a thin-skinned company on an online forum and found himself hit with a $450,000 default judgment against him because he didn't show up in court to defend himself (he claims he had no idea he had been sued). Even those among us who might not be guilty of stealing have probably said something bad about various companies here and elsewhere. Should we all go hire a lawyer RIGHT NOW?
posted by briank (17 comments total)

 
Yes. Unfortunately, in this day and age, we've come to the point where every single person needs to carry full-time, personal living "Liability Insurance", much the same way as we have health insurance and auto insurance.

And to think, all those laywers still in college, waiting to get their degrees.. They're gonna need to generate even more 'demand' for their services.. I can't wait!
posted by eas98 at 6:35 AM on March 1, 2002


No. Just don't get defaulted if you do get sued. I don't know whether to believe this guy that he didn't know he had been sued (after all, he did receive a copy of the judgment). In order for a default judgment to be enforceable there has to be proof that the complaint was appropriately served on the defendant (usually be hand delivery or certified mail). If he truly didn't know about the suit, and there's no proof that he was properly served, then the default will probably be set aside.

Regarding the merit of the suit, it's hard to say -- not enough info has been provided. But I do think we should all be aware that all the usual laws apply to the internet -- including libel and slander. In general with respect to corporations, that means you can't make a factual statement that is knowlingly false or made with reckless disregard of its truth. If it is true, or it's simply opinion (that does not imply knowledge "fact"), then it's not a problem. You have every right to criticize as long as you're not making a false statement. Example: "In my opinion Small-Mart's workers are unfriendly" is fine. "In my opinion Small-Mart is sending 10% of its profits to the Church of Satan" is a problem.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:58 AM on March 1, 2002


No, instead we should simply nationalize legal assistance. Heh. Be funny to see just how far that idea gets... about as far as a snowman into hell.

Freakin' lawyers would just looooove suing HMO's [or alternately, defending them... either way, draining money that could be used to pay claims]... but suggest we slap price controls on *their* services... and watch 'em squirm.

I think alot of corruption would vanish if we made it impossible for lawyers to profit obscenely from ignoble motives. Let's remove profit as a consideration from that which is the backbone of our society, to wit, the law.


Thank you. That is all.
posted by dissent at 7:02 AM on March 1, 2002


No internet required for this sort of thing. Here in Evanston, we had a deal where the power company hired a tree service to go around cutting branches that may possibly in the future pose a threat to power lines. (There had been a spate of outages for various reasons and they were trying to boost their overall uptime, and there had also been threats in the past that the city would boot ComEd as the monopoly utility.) So these guys go to town and a city that prides itself on its old-suburb Norman Rockwell appearance suddenly had all these Y-shaped trees lining the streets. At a city council meeting called to discuss the issue, a citizen stood up and lambasted the forestry company. They entered a lawsuit against her for defaming them at a city council meeting called to discuss the merits of the procedure and the competency and quality of the work done. If you can't speak your mind at a town meeting democracy is truly fucked.

The suit was later dropped, fortunately, after intense pressure from the city.
posted by dhartung at 7:25 AM on March 1, 2002


I got an easier idea. Just go out and create like 3 new and different screen names. Then develope each one as their own personality. If you get sued, you could bring up the fact that you have multiple on-line personalities and they conflicted with each other. Then you could get off by reason of insanity. I think it could work.
posted by thebwit at 7:28 AM on March 1, 2002


Certified mail is not acceptable notice for a lawsuit, unless you sign a waiver of service (in Federal court and most state jurisdictions, I should add).

I suspect there's a degree of bullshit in this story.
posted by norm at 7:59 AM on March 1, 2002


"At a city council meeting called to discuss the issue, a citizen stood up and lambasted the forestry company. They entered a lawsuit against her for defaming them at a city council meeting called to discuss the merits of the procedure and the competency and quality of the work done. If you can't speak your mind at a town meeting democracy is truly fucked."

Possibly something missing from this story too ... see pardonyou's post above. It is hard to tell what "lambasted" means ... may well be a reason why one person was sued, and not others that might be assumed to have argued in opposition to the company's work. Democracy is in trouble if one can't make legitimate arguments for or against something in a city council meeting. On the other hand, democracy is also in trouble if people do not understand that along with rights come responsibilities.

Democracy does not simply mean one is free to say whatever the hell one wants, in any forum one wants, about anyone one wants - even if it is an opinion, or completely false allegation, stated as a fact - with absolutely no repercussions. There are laws, passed by the citizens of this democracy itself, that define, and provide redress for, slander.

"Certified mail is not acceptable notice for a lawsuit, unless you sign a waiver of service (in Federal court and most state jurisdictions, I should add).
I suspect there's a degree of bullshit in this story."


Yes ... something is quite odd about this story - it doesn't make any sense. A certified letter is not only not legal in most places, but even if it were barely within the bounds of the law, the attorneys for the company itself would not be content with it - if you're suing for $450,000, you're just not this sloppy ... it is mere pocket change to have someone served ...
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:37 AM on March 1, 2002


I think supporting lawyers is the wrong way to react. Think about it - if we got RID of all the lawyers this sort of thing would never happen.

[gruff, stern respectable voice like the guy on tv] You might wonder, why do we need so many *lawyers* in the world? Why can't people get together and work things out? Well everyone doesn't go into these things even. When you go up against a big insurance company, what are your chances of getting a fair shake? They get a *whole* lot better when you've got a qualified attorney on *your* side.
posted by Settle at 9:56 AM on March 1, 2002


I think alot of corruption would vanish if we made it impossible for lawyers to profit obscenely from ignoble motives. Let's remove profit as a consideration from that which is the backbone of our society, to wit, the law.

I agree to an extent although the government has already closed off many areas of potential litigation through regulation. The worker's compensation system, for example, was created to stem a rising tide of litigation against employers by injured workers. The system certainly has its problems, but you don't hear many people arguing that we should go back to the days of allowing employees to sue every time they are injured on the job. There are numerous other examples of the government creating mandatory alternatives to private litigation for certain types of cases.

However, sometimes private actions by lawyers motivated by a possibility of profit are the only way to get justice. The problem with government agencies and even Congress is that they are often controlled ("captured") by the very industries that they seek to regulate. Witness the FDA's failure to regulate tobacco as one well-publicized recent example. Private attorneys motivated by profit may sometimes be greedy scumbags but at least you know that they aren't in bed with the people/companies/industries that they are suing. Lawyers suing HMOs for malpractice may not be ideal, but given the clout of the insurance industry with Congress and state legislatures, its hard to imagine any real public-interested regulations coming from them. Same deal with the recent cases against gun manufacturers: an ideal solution? absolutely not. but despite widespread public support for gun control Congress, the states, and the relevent regulatory agencies won't act because they have been captured by the NRA. So what else can you do?

also, with regard to universal legal assistance, I think it's an interesting idea, but you would have major problems with the quality of representation. Just look at all the controversy over the quality of public defenders in criminal trials. Also, I hardly think that an entitlement to legal representation would reduce the amount of litigation. At least in the current system, lawyers are incetivized to only take cases that they think they could possibly win.
posted by boltman at 10:19 AM on March 1, 2002


Midas, the lawsuit was brought because the citizen questioned whether the business was competent and provided quality work. (One phrase that came out was "half-butchered trees".) Those are reasonable opinions for an individual to have, particularly when the competence and quality of the work being provided was the question before the public forum.

Of course, one could say the justice system worked, because once the city voted to oppose the lawsuit, it was dropped.

But here the business was attempting to squelch the citizens' voice on the matter so that it could keep its contract with the power company. The power company should really have been accountable, here, since the tree service was acting as a subcontractor, but it's a customer-relations issue and the city was the customer. The business was pig-headed and should I ever buy a house around here I will not hire them (and I would relish the opportunity to let them know why).
posted by dhartung at 11:11 AM on March 1, 2002


Midas, the lawsuit was brought because the citizen questioned whether the business was competent and provided quality work. (One phrase that came out was "half-butchered trees".) Those are reasonable opinions for an individual to have, particularly when the competence and quality of the work being provided was the question before the public forum.

Of course, one could say the justice system worked, because once the city voted to oppose the lawsuit, it was dropped.

But here the business was attempting to squelch the citizens' voice on the matter so that it could keep its contract with the power company. The power company should really have been accountable, here, since the tree service was acting as a subcontractor, but it's a customer-relations issue and the city was the customer. The business was pig-headed and should I ever buy a house around here I will not hire them (and I would relish the opportunity to let them know why).
posted by dhartung at 11:14 AM on March 1, 2002


relevent regulatory agencies won't act because they have been captured by the NRA

Oh, never mind that second amendment thing.

And even if you throw up the specious "only for a miltia" argument, I believe that disarming the citizenry is a sure and certain path to tyranny. If you trust regulatory agencies of the government so little you think the NRA can buy them, why should I trust the government enough to give up my means of resistance, if it goes bad?

Suits against gun manufacturers are the most hideous perversion of the tort system, seeking completely to negate personal responsibility, and to disenfranchise those of us who believe the right to bear arms is inalienable.

Also, I hardly think that an entitlement to legal representation would reduce the amount of litigation.

Reduce profits for lawyers. The supply of lawyers will decrease. Then litigation will decrease.

If quality of representation sinks, maybe it's time to rewrite the laws of the land, so an ordinary person can comprehend them and plead his own cases.
posted by dissent at 1:07 PM on March 1, 2002


Oh, never mind that second amendment thing.

yes, i am going to throw up the "specious" only-for-a-militia argument because it is the binding law of the nation under United States v. Miller. But I'm sure you know that.

even if the second amendment did protect the right to bear arms, it wouldn't shield gun makers from tort liability if their guns were found to be defective or unreasonably dangerous products, or if their marketing and distribution tactics were found to be negligent or reckless (as the plaintiffs claimed). similarly, the first amendment protects freedom of speech, but that doesn't mean that newspaper companies are free to publish anything they want, no matter how libelous or dangerous.

The NRA is extremely powerful because it is the classic case of a tiny but highly-motivated interest group vs. a large but relatively disorganized and somewhat disinterested majority. This is always a recipe for legislative and regulatory capture. I mean, come on--nobody but the gun-nuts care about the interpretation of the Second Amendment. Certainly the regulatory agencies that are supposed to be regulating guns don't and I'll bet most Congresspeople don't. Even the Supreme Court doesn't care or it would have taken a Second Amendment case between 1939 and today. It's just that everyone (except tort lawyers) are afraid of the politcal consequences of opposing the NRA.
posted by boltman at 1:57 PM on March 1, 2002


Thank God, then for the NRA.
posted by dissent at 2:22 PM on March 1, 2002


"But here the business was attempting to squelch the citizens' voice on the matter so that it could keep its contract with the power company. The power company should really have been accountable, here, since the tree service was acting as a subcontractor, but it's a customer-relations issue and the city was the customer. The business was pig-headed and should I ever buy a house around here I will not hire them (and I would relish the opportunity to let them know why)."

Well, I can't really argue this particular case - since You have access to full information, and I have access to none. The principle - however - is still valid. Certainly businesses can attempt to "squelch" citizen's voices on many matters. Citizens also not uncommonly use the legal system to "squelch" business. (Ask any forestry or mining company - who now simply assume that the legal costs of opening something new will be fully equal to the costs of operating the business itself).

But, as you say, we do have a court system ... and in the end it usually does produce a decision in line with the law.
posted by MidasMulligan at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2002


my anti-drug is spitting in the face of every lawyer I encounter...(w/ few exceptions)
posted by ayukna at 2:55 PM on March 1, 2002


Not all lawyers are bad folks. For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good FAQ about John Doe lawsuits on chillingeffects.org

If quality of representation sinks, maybe it's time to rewrite the laws of the land, so an ordinary person can comprehend them and plead his own cases.

They tried that in England in 1363, when they switched over from French to English under the statute of pleadings. Didn't seem to make much difference, as seen by this early (1383) arms control act which was still written in French. (The english translation is difficult to understand, too.)

A certified letter is not only not legal in most places...

Some long arm statutes allow for the use of certified mail as service if proper service is made upon the Secretary of State, when the underlying offense is a tort like defamation. A case in Texas where service was made by certified mail, and a Texas Court awarded a default happened a couple of years ago, where a statement was made on a message board. The plaintiffs went after the defendant's in British Columbia to try to satisfy the judgment, and the Canadian Courts turned them away. But the decision wasn't based upon the invalidity of certified mail as a form of service, but rather because the defendant didn't have sufficient ties to Texas to qualify to be served in that manner.

my anti-drug is spitting in the face of every lawyer I encounter

ayukna... Oh, man. A couple of my best friends are lawyers, and both of them are much too big to treat like that. But, the profession does have its share of practioners who drag down the reputations of the rest.
posted by bragadocchio at 4:23 PM on March 1, 2002


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