State Appeals Court Tosses Defamation Suit Against Lawyer Who Wrote About Teen Driver Who Injured His Client
from the lower-court-apparently-believes-only-God's-direct-word-to-be-'substantia dept
An interesting sidebar to a case we’ve written about previously has surfaced via the ever-attentive Eric Goldman. Last month we covered a lawsuit against Snapchat brought by the victims of an car accident. The victims claim Snapchat is at least partially responsible for the injuries inflicted on Karen Maynard. The driver of the other vehicle, Christal McGee, was allegedly driving at over 100 mph when she hit Maynard’s vehicle. The suit also alleged — based on passenger statements, accident reconstruction, and police reports — McGee was using Snapchat’s “Speed” filter when the accident occurred.
The Georgia state appeals court allowed the case to proceed, but not on Section 230 grounds. It was remanded to the lower court to allow for more exploration of the issues at hand, noting that Section 230 likely does not apply to software created by Snapchat itself. Of course, dismissal may still be the outcome as it’s going to be tough to prove Snapchat’s creation of a filter was either negligence or contributory to the accident caused by McGee’s unsafe driving.
The sidebar is this: Christal McGee has racked up a loss in Georgia Appeals Court in a case tied to the accident she caused. McGee sued Michael Neff — the Maynards’ legal rep in the lawsuit against Snapchat — for defamation. According to McGee, Neff’s blog post detailing the Snapchat lawsuit was defamatory. The lower court allowed the case to proceed, slapping aside Neff’s anti-SLAPP motion.
The appeals court, however, finds [PDF] there was no defamation and certainly nothing written with actual malice. (Emphasis in the original.)
Neff argues that he acted in good faith at the time he published the article to his law firm’s website because he relied upon the police report, the report from the accident reconstructionist and the verified affidavit of Heather McCarty. This evidence was known to Neff prior to the publication of his article on April 26, 2016. In its ruling that “[t]here is evidence from which a jury could find that some of [the statements in the article] were false,” the trial court cited to affidavits signed after the publication of the article. This, and other evidence cited to by McGee that was not known to Neff until after the publication of the article, do not factor into his good faith at the time of publication.
McGee argued Neff’s statements were malicious because the affidavits he used to write his article weren’t signed at the point the post went live. The appeals court finds this does not make his use of the affidavits’ contents malicious, especially since some of this testimony was already included in available police reports.
The only other evidence Neff had at the time he published his article were statements obtained by the police from the other passengers in McGee’s car. The statements in the police report by two of the passengers in McGee’s car did not deny McGee’s use of Snapchat. One of these statements was silent as to McGee’s speed, and the other stated that she had been traveling at 60-65 m.p.h. A third statement, by Heather McCarty, was signed and stated that McGee was going “a little over 110 m.p.h.” at the time of the accident.
The statements made by Neff about teens’ use of Snapchat while driving (and, in particular, McGee’s alleged use of Snapchat) were supported by outside statements. The lower court should not have declared these blog post assertions should be subjected to additional courtroom scrutiny before allowing a motion to dismiss.
The court also notes the content of the blog post was of public interest. It dealt with teen driving, Snapchat use while driving, a just-filed lawsuit against the company, and, generally, the dangers of distracted driving. The mention of McGee’s alleged careless driving was relevant to the lawsuit and the issues at hand. There was nothing defamatory about Neff’s public discussion of these allegation, especially when supported by passenger statements to police and as-yet-unsigned affidavits.
Adding it all up, the appeals court says there’s no way McGee is likely to prevail on the merits of her allegations. The lawsuit is dismissed under Georgia’s anti-SLAPP law, which means McGee will now likely to be on the hook for Neff’s legal costs.