If At First You Fail In Suing A Blogger For Defamation Over His Description Of You Shooting Two Dogs, Try, Try Again

from the double-jeopardy dept

I have to admit that I was pretty sure I've written about this case before, but in searching through the archives, I can't find it. So, here's the quick summary of Comins v. VanVoorhis. Christopher Comins, a wealthy Florida businessman, found out about some dogs running around some cows in a field owned by a business associate. Comins, apparently believing the dogs were wolves, went to the field (with permission of the owner) with some guns and shot the two dogs over and over again. Originally, he claimed self-defense, but after the following video appeared on YouTube showing the whole incident, that story didn't quite hold:
The story made the national press. It was also picked up on many blogs, including this blog post by University of Florida student Matthew Frederick VanVoorhis. VanVoorhis' description of the events is certainly "almost novelistic," as the CitMedia link above suggests. As such it does assume a few things, such as emotions, and may not be perfectly accurate in the timeline. But does it rise to the level of defamation? That seems extraordinarily unlikely, at best, but Comins chose to sue him for defamation. Seeing as the story was covered widely by the media, and there's a video of the events in question, you might think that it's a bit strange to sue a random blogger who very few people read. Perhaps he really is "the easiest target," as some suggest. If anything, it had all the hallmarks of a SLAPP suit, especially since VanVoorhis' post also questioned Cumin's connections to politically powerful figures, and how that might impact any lawsuit concerning the shootings.

Either way, despite the video, Comins ended up being acquitted of the shooting, with the judge claiming that shooting a couple dogs at extremely close range was not torturing an animal. As the link in this paragraph notes, it seems like that's the kind of question a jury should answer, rather than a judge.

As for VanVoorhis, it turns out that the case against him was also shot down, but on specific procedural grounds. Basically, under Florida law, you have to provide specific notice before suing for defamation. VanVoorhis insists no such notification was given. Cumins insists that it was but there was a procedural mistake in letting the court know. Either way, the court granted summary judgment, solely on that issue, rather than discussing any of the free speech issues.

VanVoorhis, represented by Randazza Legal Group (whose cases we seem to write about a lot around here...), followed up by pushing for sanctions, claiming that Comins' lawyer falsely told the court that VanVoorhis had been notified under the law. That motion was denied, though apparently the court called it "a very, very close call."

Comins... in response, appears to have simply filed a new defamation lawsuit against VanVoorhis, using statements from the blog that VanVoorhis set up to cover stories related to the lawsuit itself. I have no idea if the statements in question are actually libelous (though, the bar for defaming a public person, like Comins, is substantially higher than someone else). But, either way, I do question the wisdom of suing yet again, especially suing someone to whom he already lost a lawsuit. It certainly feels like just another attempt to effectively retry the same lawsuit, which still has the feel of a SLAPP. It's just that Comins and his lawyer found different quotes to use.

Of course, every time Comins takes action like this, it just brings the original video and the original story back into the spotlight. I can't see how that helps his image at all. One of the things in defamation cases is that you're supposed to try to take actions to minimize the damages. Suing yet again doesn't seem likely to do that.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Nov 21st, 2011 @ 3:16pm

    Anti-SLAPP PSA?

    Barbara Streisand should put out a PSA to help people like Comins. Maybe if enough people in the position to sue to quiet others' opinions see how getting even continues to ruin reputations long after they've been tarnished they'll get the idea and stop insisting on silencing others by torturing the law.

     

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  2.  
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    ramjet57 (profile), Nov 21st, 2011 @ 3:43pm

    dog killer

    He can sue all he wants. Doesn't change the fact he is a cowardly dog killer.

     

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  3.  
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    banshee, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 4:07pm

    awful

    But the question of whether what Comins did was 'torture' under the law was properly put to a judge and not a jury. It's pretty clear from the tape what he did. No need for a jury to establish the facts here, from what I can tell.

     

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  4.  
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    Drak, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 4:20pm

    Dogs on the range

    Stray dogs around livestock get shot, end of story. I fail to see why there is such an uproar over it. The lawsuit on the other hand is funny.

     

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  5.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Nov 21st, 2011 @ 5:02pm

    Re: Dogs on the range

    Stray dogs around livestock get shot, end of story.

    From what I read so far, that is not what happened here:

    1. The owner of the cattle knew that these were dogs.
    2. The dogs were not stray, and the owner was present during much of the shooting -- and even confronted the shooter during the shooting, and the shooter continued to shoot the dogs after the owner tried to intervene.
    3. The shooter initially said that the dogs tried to attack him and the cattle, but the video tells a different story.
    4. A civil case against the shooter found that the shooter was liable for shooting the dogs.
    5. The judge, the owner of the cattle, and the shooter know each other through a prayer group. In this case, the judge should have recused himself, as he is unfit to make a judgement on an individual he had personal contact with.
    6. The judge acquitted the shooter half way through the trial, after a jury was impaneled.

     

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  6.  
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    Atkray (profile), Nov 21st, 2011 @ 5:07pm

    Re: dog killer

    and a piss poor shot as well.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 5:08pm

    Isn't there a law that stops people from suing others into poverty?

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 5:34pm

    Re: Dogs on the range

    Do you shoot stray people too?

     

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  9.  
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    Aerilus, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 5:35pm

    Re: Re: Dogs on the range

    from what I am reading the owner of the dogs was an idiot and should be charged with cruelty to animals as well as stupidity

    (http://christophercomins.blogspot.com/2008/10/at-least-25-contacts-were-made-to.html)

    you don't let your dogs go after livestock, anyone who lives in the country know that if your dogs run loose and get into someoneelse's livestock they will be shot. from what I am reading and from watching the video theses were "husky dogs" so thinking they were wolves is an understandable if ignorant mistake the video really doesn't show where the owner came from but if they were close enough to hear gun shots and come running then they were close enough to stop their dogs from messing with someoneelse's live stock. from what I am reading this was a frequent problem as most of these situations are, where authorities were contacted multiple times about the animals bothering the livestock. It is not clean from the video weather the first shot was aimed at the dogs or was meant to scare them off once that shot is fired the dogs charge him which could be construed as attacking him. I have had dogs shot because they ran off and got in someones chicken pen I can't say that I bear the person who did it any good will or that I would do the same in the same situation but I accept the fact that he was trying to prevent damage to his livestock which is legal afaik. I also really don't like the ignorance of the Scottish/Irish person making the video farmers are allowed to have guns in the UK for specifically for this reason. I don't see what the issue is I would be upset if someone did this to my animal but if I failed to control my animal and it goes after someone's animal then it is my fault the animal was killed. I would appreciate if I was warned and asked to keep my dogs up but that is a courtesy and in most of these situations the dogs owner can't be established. again it is unclear where the dogs owner came from if he is the owner at all (2:30 "they're that guys dogs")

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 6:16pm

    What was that? Christopher Comins shot and killed two dogs? Surely everyone should know about this!

     

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    Psyga Sanichigo (profile), Nov 21st, 2011 @ 7:10pm

    Where's PETA in all this?

    They'd be suing him left right and center...

    Oh wait. That would require PETA actually being smart.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 8:07pm

    Re:

    You are right that is heavy stuff, maybe something more funny like the leaked e-mails of FBI agents and their angry ex-wives voicemails would be more interesting.

    Quote:
    We
    also couldn't overlook the boatloads of embarrassing personal information about
    our cop friend Fred. We lulzed as we listened to angry voicemails from his
    estranged wives and ex-girlfriends while also reading his conversations with
    girls who responded to his "man seeking woman" craigslist ads. We turned on his
    google web history and watched him look up linux command line basics, golfing
    tutorials, and terrible youtube music videos. We also abused his google
    voice account, making sure Fred's friends and family knew how hard he was owned.

    Source: http://pastebin.com/NwN8ehFW

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2011 @ 9:16pm

    This happened in the Orlando area, where I happen to live.

    Most of the factual understandings mentioned above are not accurate. The field is an open agricultural area within a developed area. Why? Property tax breaks given to agricultural land while it is maintained in a developer's inventory until highway overpasses are built, at which time the cows and other agricultural uses are abandoned in a heartbeat.

    The individual did not own the land, nor did he own the cattle. He just happened to know both, called each of them up, and then asked each if they had any objection to him taking things into his own hands.

    No way Siberian huskies look like wolves, and to even tell others "I thought they were wolves" is absurd since wolves are not indigenous to Central Florida. Coyotes? A few have migrated here, but they bear no resemblance to the alleged wolves. Moreover, the pursue small game, and certainly not cattle.

    The dog owner resides in property adjacent to the field, and the dogs somehow got out of their enclosure. As his dogs were being shot he was standing next to the shooter telling him they were dogs and begging him to stop shooting. Of course, his pleas were ignored.

    The Orange County Sheriff Department's original investigation did not have the benefit of the videos. It closed the investigation almost immediately, and only later re-opened its investigation when the videos surfaced.

    Interestingly, the land owner is one of only a very few who have the unique ability to purchase land that just happens to be located where major public works projects, which are unknown to the general public and maintained close to the chest by local government. At this location will shortly be built a major interchange, which when built will cause its value to rise incredibly. Plans are already underway by the developed to subdivide the property, have it rezoned for business uses, and then watch his cash register spin like a slot machine.

    And who says prayer meetings, where the participants disingenuously say are only for prayer and no business is ever discussed, are not good for one's eternal soul (and pocket book).

    I am well familiar with all the major players in these "development games" because at one time or another I have dealt as a lawyer with several of their machinations that confer upon them benefits that are denied to the general public. Of course, I was on the other side of the aisle.

    What I find especially sad is that nothing that happens in Central Florida is any different than what happens on a regular basis throughout the US at all levels of government.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 1:47am

    Re:

    Actually, there are wolves in Florida. There are several wolf sanctuaries, and red wolves were released into the wilds in Florida, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Take a look at pictures, and you'll see how close they do look like Siberians. This doesn't excuse the shooting, just corrects something.

     

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  15.  
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    btrussell (profile), Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 2:04am

    Re: Re: Dogs on the range

    Nope!

    We taze 'em. End result may be the same though.

     

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  16.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 6:42am

    Re: Where's PETA in all this?

    PETA only cares about stopping everyday legal "exploitation" of animals, such as milking them or keeping them as pets.

    Free the cows! They belong in the wild! Honey bees is slavery!

    Having dogs as pets is badwrongslavery!

    Pigs aren't food, they're pets! *brain asplode*

     

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  17.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 11:41am

    Re: Re: Re: Dogs on the range

    from what I am reading the owner of the dogs was an idiot and should be charged with cruelty to animals as well as stupidity

    Doesn't matter. Just because the owner is a moron doesn't mean that a third party can shoot the dogs when the moron comes to collect them? If you have a dog, and your dog runs all over the street, and I accidently run into your dog and kill it. Under most state laws (I did a cursory check,) I still am required to contact you and arrange payment for the loss of your property. Just because you let them run wild doesn't mean that I am off the hook. Sure, you might be charged with allowing your dogs to run free, but I am still on the hook.

    Now, the first couple shots while the owner wasn't present is fine...but the moment the owner approached and told the man with a gun that it was his dogs, and instead of stopping or confronting the owner, he continued to shoot. I am not going off of the video, I am going off of court testimony from the trial which if you read, would have given you a clearer understanding of what happened from people who were there. Since you and I weren't there, and only have the video (and in my case, the statements of those who were there,) we can't really say exactly what happened, but shouldn't a jury, given all the facts, be called upon to do so, instead of a judge who was friends with the shooter?

     

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  18.  
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    hmm (profile), Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 2:50pm

    Re: Where's PETA in all this?

    PETA would only use if he then made dog-burgers.....

     

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  19.  
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    The Devil's Coachman (profile), Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 5:53pm

    Re: Re: dog killer

    and his mother may have been a prostitute, for all we know.

     

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  20.  
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    The Devil's Coachman (profile), Nov 22nd, 2011 @ 5:57pm

    Re:

    Netted out - crooks at work. Some things never change. Unless you kill them.

     

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  21.  
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    Aerilus, Nov 23rd, 2011 @ 12:07am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Dogs on the range

    there are very clear provisions at least in NC for dogs attacking livestock I've looked them up they are there

    http://law.onecle.com/north-carolina/67-dogs/67-14.html

    Any person may kill any mad dog, and also any dog if he is killing sheep, cattle, hogs, goats, or poultry. (1919, c. 116, s. 8; C.S., s. 1682.)

    http://law.onecle.com/north-carolina/67-dogs/67-1.html

    If any dog, not being at the time on the premises of the owner or person having charge thereof, shall kill or injure any livestock or fowls, the owner or person having such dog in charge shall be liable for damages sustained by the injury, killing, or maiming of any livestock, and costs of suit. (1911, c. 3, s. 1; C.S., s. 1669.)

    Sections: 67-1 67-2 67-3 67-4 67-4.1 67-4.2 67-4.3 67-4.4 67-4.5 67-12 67-14 67-14.1 67-16 67-18 67-30 Next

    idon't know about other states, and even though these laws seem to say you cant just shoot animals around livestock that is not how they are interpreted by law enforcement or the legal system at least in NC, NC law also has the statuete

    67-4.4. Strict liability

    The owner of a dangerous dog shall be strictly liable in civil damages for any injuries or property damage the dog inflicts upon a person, his property, or another animal.

    Added by Laws 1989 (Reg. Sess., 1990), c. 1023, 1.

    and there are many local laws requiring animals to be leashed, if you hit a dog then then you might be liable for the dog but the owner would be liable for any damage to your vehicle.

    Realistically you cant expect a jury to get drug in on every little thing what happened here is clear from the video it seems a shame to spend years dragging this through appeal after appeal after appeal and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and taking up weeks of a juries time just to determine weather or not some one is guilty of a misdemeanor charge when they clearly under the law are not. why have the law in the first place if anything is debatable to the nth degree I understand the flip side of the argument but like the judge I think that this is a very clear open and shut case, you also do not address my links to articles saying that this was a continuous issue that had been going on for a long time what do you suggest the owner of the livestock do if the authorities have already been contacted multiple times without result and the dogs continue to harass the cattle. personally I would have invested in a donkey or a great pyrenees. I do not think the person who shot the dogs deserves to get brought up on charges that increase when the story gets media attention.

     

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  22.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Nov 23rd, 2011 @ 11:08am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Dogs on the range

    Any person may kill any mad dog, and also any dog if he is killing sheep, cattle, hogs, goats, or poultry. (1919, c. 116, s. 8; C.S., s. 1682.)

    Please show me where in this case cattle were killed. Oh, that's right, you can't. Nor can the original shooter.

    The owner of a dangerous dog shall be strictly liable in civil damages for any injuries or property damage the dog inflicts upon a person, his property, or another animal.

    Show me where cattle were killed or injured. In a matter of fact, the way the shooter was firing the handgun, I suspect there was more risk of the cattle or the observers being injured by the shooter.

    Realistically you cant expect a jury to get drug in on every little thing

    True, but when there is an obvious conflict of interest, the best thing the judge should have done was recuse himself.

     

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  23.  
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    Dawn, Nov 19th, 2012 @ 1:54pm

    Why did they just tape it and not stop him from shooting them?

     

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