Appellate Court rejects trial court’s nominal damages award for defamation liability

Using social media to air grievances can be an expensive proposition, ultimately not worth trouble. The case Forinash v. Weber , which originated in the Sandusky County Court of Common Pleas, illustrates how litigation in the social media context can play out, not to mention how unpredictable an assessment of damages can be.

Background facts and outcome in the trial court

The plaintiff, who was also the appealing party, Brian Forinash, sued Angela Weber, the mother of his minor child, for damages stemming from her Facebook post in which she asserted that he is “hooked on porn [and] watches dirty movies with teenage girls.” He further alleged that additional Facebook posts, primarily related to an ongoing court battle involving their child, placed him before the public in a false light. Characterizing these posts as defamatory in nature, Mr. Forinash sought an award in excess of $25,000.

After some legal maneuvering, Mr. Forinash asked the court grant him summary judgment. Ms. Weber did not respond, the trial court granted his motion, and set a separate hearing to determine the amount of damages.

The trial court concluded that Mr. Forinash was “clearly defamed by the postings [Ms. Weber] made to her Facebook pages…[and] damaged in his relationship with his daughter with [Ms. Weber], as well as his relationship with his daughter with his ex-wife.” Combined with the finding that Ms. Weber acted with malice, or the intention to cause harm, the court awarded Mr. Forinash $100 in nominal damages, and $500 in punitive damages. The court also ordered Ms. Weber to pay Mr. Forinash’s court costs, along with $2,000 in “reasonable attorney fees incurred by [appellant] in prosecuting this action.”

It is not uncommon for a court to award nominal damages when there is no actual financial loss. Here, the court reasoned that the meager amount was appropriate because Mr. Forinash’s standing in the community had not been tarnished by the Facebook posts; he lives in the Youngstown area, whereas she lives in Sandusky County, “where the Facebook posts would primarily have been read.” Nor, according to the court, did he lose his job, or suffer any reduction in wages due to Ms. Weber’s defamatory statements.

The appeal

Among other things, Mr. Forinash appealed the trial court’s award of nominal damages. He argued that by virtue of the publication of the defamatory statements on the Internet, they were not confined to a certain geographic region. He supported his position with unrefuted testimony revealing that friends from North Carolina questioned him about the on-line statements.

The appellate court agreed with Mr. Forinash’s rationale, declaring that the “record contains no competent and credible evidence to support the court’s finding that [Ms. Weber’s] defamatory statements were only viewed by residents of Sandusky County. Further, it would defy reality to conclude that a post on a social networking Internet site such as Facebook is in any way limited in its geographic reach.”

Thus, the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court to reexamine the issue of damages.




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