Southern Indiana attorneys who recently won defamation damages over a Facebook post say the court’s monetary award is the first reported judgment of its kind in the nation.

But a Terre Haute attorney says he won a Vigo County defamation suit in 2012.

“Defending a client's reputation is worthwhile no matter the medium,” said Scott Kyrouac, an attorney with the Terre Haute firm Wilkinson, Goeller, Modesitt, Wilkinson & Drummy.

Such rulings by the courts should be a warning to people to be careful what they post about someone else on social media, Kyrouac said.

He filed the Vigo County case in December 2011 after his client said a former friend posted an inappropriate remark on Facebook. The attorney said he called the woman who posted the remark, asking her to remove it because it defamed his client's reputation.

“Instead of removing it, she made a few additional inappropriate remarks,” Kyrouac said.

The remarks met Indiana's definition of defamation per se — a false statement that injures someone's reputation.

In Indiana, a false statement can fall into the general categories of indicating a person was:

• Involved in a criminal activity.

• Has a "loathsome," contagious or infectious disease.

• Engaged in sexual misconduct.

• Engaged in misconduct in profession or business.

Kyrouac said the Vigo County case referred to sexual misconduct, which hurt his client because she was a professional in the community and the statement was not accurate.

The case was heard in Vigo Superior Court 3, where the court awarded the plaintiff $5,000 in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages.

"The defendant turned out to be very sorry and realized she made a mistake," Kyrouac said. "There is no longer a friendship, but the defendant didn't realize you have to be careful on social media."

In the recent case in southern Indiana, a woman claimed on Facebook that the mother of her dead boyfriend stole her pickup truck after the boyfriend died.

It turns out the truck did not legally belong to the woman, so she had defamed her late boyfriend's mother, who was awarded $6,000 in damages.

That case, Kyrouac points out, met the false criminal activity category.

Facebook is not the only public forum upon which defamation easily and suddenly can appear. Twitter, Linked In and other public forums have had their share of statements that cross the line.

DePauw University Communications professor Jeffrey McCall, a recognized authority on media, ethics and standards, said discretion is key when posting anything online, and people would be wise to calm down and think before posting.

"People tend to express outrage on social media in ways they wouldn't otherwise do in public," McCall said. "In that sense, the internet gives people a false sense of security, and that prompts people to engage in unwise, uncivil messages."

McCall said people tend to look at social media outlets as free expression venues, but that doesn't make them free-for-alls when it comes to defamation.

"Some people try to remain anonymous or use false identities in engaging social media, but those aren't necessarily guarantees of remaining unidentified," McCall said. "Virtually all internet communications can be traced if authorities are determined enough."

One public forum that attracts a lot of online comments is the website Topix.com, which offers forums to specific locations, such as Terre Haute.

"I'm surprised there are not a lot more lawsuits coming out of Topix," Kyrouac said.

 

Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.

Lisa Trigg has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star since 2009. With close to 29 years of newspaper experience, she now covers general news with a focus on crime and courts.