Section Review

Jurisdiction in cases of anonymous defamatory Internet postings:
Getting the "home court" advantage

People have been posting information on the Internet under assumed "screen names" for nearly as long as the Internet has been in existence. Web postings by such anonymous authors present a variety of legal issues. A recent case from the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts sheds some new light on where a lawsuit over such anonymous postings can be filed.

The Internet is rampant with chat rooms and message boards. Many companies have multiple message boards devoted solely to their business. Virtually all of the postings on such message boards are anonymous, with the posters using screen names. In many cases - no doubt encouraged by the cloak of anonymity - persons posting messages attempt to further their own agendas by means of defamatory or disparaging statements. In response, some companies have brought lawsuits against "John Does" in an effort to identify the wrongdoers, stop the defamatory postings and recover damages.

Courts hearing "John Doe" cases around the country have generally recognized that the true identity of an anonymous poster is discoverable through the litigation process. A subpoena issued to obtain documents related to the establishment of the poster's screen name account frequently will provide information sufficient to track down the person's true identity. While it may surprise many of the people who participate in posting messages, their "anonymous" screen name does not protect them from being sued if they defame or disparage a business.

An important question facing the victim of message board defamation is where to bring suit. Messages can be posted from anywhere and can be read anywhere. Thus, a John Doe in another state can post messages that may have an impact on a Massachusetts business and give rise to a potential claim. A few early cases from other states seemed to suggest that such defamation suits would have to be filed in the state where the John Doe posted the message. That was the issue that came before the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in Abiomed, Inc. v. Michael Turnbull, 379 F. Supp. 2d 90 (D. Mass 2005); 2005 U.S. Dist. Lexis 14602 (July 11, 2005).

Abiomed Inc. is a Massachusetts company engaged in the manufacture of artificial hearts. Michael Turnbull is a resident of Ohio and an officer of Thoratec Inc., a company that competes with Abiomed. Abiomed sued Turnbull in Massachusetts claiming that Turnbull had anonymously posted defamatory messages on a Yahoo! message board devoted to Abiomed. Turnbull moved to dismiss the Massachusetts lawsuit on the ground that there was no personal jurisdiction over him in Massachusetts. He argued that he owned no property in Massachusetts and had only minimal business contacts with Massachusetts, emphasizing that he was a resident of Ohio.

The court's analysis of the jurisdictional issue focused on the messages posted by Turnbull. Although Turnbull authored his statements in Ohio, the court determined that his postings were read by Massachusetts residents and, in some cases, directed to individuals in Massachusetts. The court concluded that Turnbull intentionally directed his defamatory statements at Abiomed in Massachusetts and intended the effect of his false statements to be felt in Massachusetts. The court even noted that Turnbull's efforts to hide his identity by use of a screen name bolstered the conclusion that if his identity was discovered, it was foreseeable he would be brought into a Massachusetts court to answer for his statements.

The court found that Turnbull's message board postings created a sufficient basis to assert personal jurisdiction over him in Massachusetts. By directing his statements at Abiomed with the intention of causing harm in Massachusetts, Turnbull subjected himself to a lawsuit in Massachusetts. Thus, Abiomed was able to proceed with its case in Massachusetts.

The Abiomed case is another weapon in the arsenal of Massachusetts businesses that are the victims of Internet activity originating in other states. The ability to force a defendant to come to Massachusetts to defend his or her actions provides a significant strategic advantage. Abiomed also helps to clarify some of the many unanswered questions that still permeate the interaction of Internet activity and traditional personal jurisdiction law.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association