A false statement on a Facebook post that implied drunkenness had led to the death of a woman's child ended in a $500,000 defamation lawsuit settlement. The case may have repercussions for how people communicate on the social media platform.
Claiming defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress, North Carolina resident Davyne Dial, the general manager of low-wattage radio station WPVM, sued Jacquelyn Hammond over a Facebook post made on Nov. 5, 2015.
The two women had once worked together to gain control over the radio station, Dial said, Citizen-Times reports. But Hammond later sided with a board member who opposed the sale of the station.
In early February, a Buncombe County Superior Court judge approved the consent judgment, which awarded Dial a total judgment of $500,000. Hammond settled on the amount for having written on Facebook: "I didn't get drunk and kill my kid."
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Dial's son was killed in 1976, at the age of 11, in an accidental shooting while playing with another boy. Dial was not involved in the accident.
Gathering evidence for the lawsuit required that Dial relive that horrible time of her life, ABA Journal reports.
One reason Dial sued Hammond was to "make a statement to the community that you can't get on social media and run your mouth without consequences."
Hammond's attorney originally argued her comment had nothing to do with Dial. The remark, her lawyer said, was "mistakenly placed in one Facebook thread while [Hammond] was simultaneously participating in another online forum discussion."
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Michael Green, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law and expert in tort law, stated he was "stunned" by the settlement amount.
"That is extraordinarily rare to have a private defamation suit result in a recovery of that magnitude," he said. "I am astonished, because as I'm sure you're aware, if I whack somebody with my automobile, or somebody comes to my house and suffers a really serious injury, I'm insured for that. But libel is not covered by any insurance that an individual would normally have."
While most settlements remain confidential, Dial wants to make a point about online behavior with her case, he said.
Green expressed doubt the full amount of the settlement money, or even a significant part of the money, would be paid out to Dial.
Dial confirmed the $500,000 settlement amount was correct but declined to say if and when the money would be forthcoming.
"This woman had been carrying on a smear campaign against me for nearly a year on social media," Dial said of Hammond. "And social media makes it very easy to do this. There are no filters to say whatever you think behind the safety of your screen. She had made other untrue statements through the years, but when this happened, it was very painful."
Dial expressed hope the case would make people think twice about what they post on social media.
"It tells you you need to be careful on social media and not put stuff out to the world that is untrue -- that you might do it to someone who will hold you accountable for what you’re doing," Dial said. "It’s too easy these days to do this sort of thing and let it go out to the public."
She added: "As you well know, in the past when things got published, there was an editor or there was some sort of filter. You don’t have that anymore, because now everybody is free to be their own sounding board out to the community."