April 24, 2012 -- A Texas couple who filed a defamation lawsuit over three years ago against anonymous posters on the Internet forum Topix.com won a $13.8 million judgment from a jury.
Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville, Texas, filed a suit against anonymous commenters who accused them of being sexual deviants, molesters, and drug dealers on Topix, once self-described as "the country's largest local forum site."
"This vindicates us. This is vindication for all the scurrilous, vile, defamatory statements that caused us to be indicted, to be tried, that caused us to move out of town and my wife to lose her business," Mark Lesher said, the Texarkana Gazette reported. "You can't post anonymous lies on the Internet without suffering the consequences."
Mark Lesher, 63, and his wife, Rhonda, 50, first made news in Texas when the couple, along with a man who works on their ranch, were accused of sexual assault by a woman in their small northeast Texas community.
In January 2009, a jury found the couple and their ranch hand not guilty on all charges, but before the three were indicted on the charges, a steady stream of attacks on the Web forum Topix.com started to flow.
After the Leshers filed their lawsuit in February 2009 against the anonymous commenters, a Texas judge ordered Topix to turn over identifying information about the anonymous posters. Information disclosed by Topix, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, or the unique number assigned to each computer, led the couple to a business owned by the husband of a woman who accused the couple of sexual assault in 2008.
A jury on Friday awarded the Leshers with $13.78 million on Friday.
"Our clients, Mark Lesher and Rhonda Lesher, have triumphed over those who maliciously sought to systematically destroy the very essence of their respective freedoms," read a statement from the Leshers' attorneys, William Pieratt Demond and Meagan Hassan of Demond & Hassan, PLLC. "For years, the Leshers have known a special form of pain and suffering imposed by a select few that mistakenly believed they were both above the law and anonymous. This victory does more than just help clear the Leshers' names; it evidences the pricelessness of our reputations, the fundamental importance of free speech, and the relationship of each to the other. For that, we congratulate the Leshers and the juries that have correctly discerned truth from fiction."
The Leshers could not be reached for comment.
An amended petition in the District Court of Tarrant County Texas in July 2009 had named six parties including Shannon Coyel, the couple's accuser, her husband Gerald Coyel and his brother James Coyel. It also included the business Apache Truck & Van Parts in Kennedale, Texas, and two of its employees, Charlie and Pat Doescher. The Leshers allege the computers tied to the IP addresses were used by the Doeschers.
Last week's verdict included judgments against the Coyels and Charlie Doesher. The jury ordered Jerry Coyel to pay Mark Lesher $5.1 million for mental anguish and loss of reputation. Shannon Coyel and Doesher must pay $1.7 million each, according to the jury's verdict.
Jerry Coyel must pay Rhonda Lesher $3.168 million for mental anguish, loss of reputation and loss of her business, a hair salon and day spa she owned in Clarksville. Shannon Coyel and Doesher were ordered to pay Rhonda Lesher $1.056 million each.
The Coyels and Doeschers could not be reached for comment.
Since reports of the rape allegations began to surface in 2008, more than 25,000 comments, on about 70 threads related to the trial, were posted on Topix message boards for anyone with a search engine to see.
Ryan Calo, who teaches privacy law at Stanford Law School and is joining the faculty at the University of Washington School of Law, said the $13 million figure "strikes me as a very large award."
"Defamation is one area of law in which a jury or court have to figure out how much damage has been done," he said. "It's not a car accident where you can calculate medical bills and how much work was lost after an injury. There's something more ephemeral in a reputation."
For that reason, defamation awards "run the gamut from small to large."
"Everyone knows people say crazy things on the Internet, especially when they do it anonymously," he said.
Given the large amount of the award, Calo said it could have a chilling effect on legitimate speech.
"If the award is upheld, then people will think twice about what they say," he said.
The Gazette reported a malicious prosecution suit is pending that names as defendants the Coyels and Red River County District Attorney Val Varley, who unsuccessfully prosecuted the sexual assault case against the Leshers. That suit accuses them of conspiring to convict the Leshers of a crime they did not commit. The newspaper reports that the a jury trial is scheduled for August.
Rhonda Lesher was running a successful day spa and her husband is a prominent attorney. But comments on Topix, which have no basis in fact, Mark Lesher said when the suit was filed, accused the couple of murder, encouraging pedophilia, drug abuse and other crimes that materially attack their characters.
Although the couple felt vindicated by the not-guilty sexual assault verdict, they said the anonymous posters who have made their lives "torture" should be held accountable for the damage they have done.
In the 365-page lawsuit filed three years ago, the Leshers named the 178 pseudonyms used to post what they considered the most defamatory messages. They posted the lawsuit on Topix and served the company a subpoena to obtain the IP addresses.
But finding the request too large in scope, Topix responded soon after with a motion to quash the couple's subpoena.
Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, told ABC News after the jury's verdict that the subpoena three years ago was "a bit overbroad."
"We did our best to both protect the identity of our users as well as provide the courts what they needed for what has now been ruled as libelous," Tolles said.
In March 2009, a California judge denied the Web forum Topix.com's request to withhold any identifying information for the targets of the suit, although it also granted the company's motion for a protective order "to protect the identities of the anonymous Internet posters."
Lawyers for Topix and the Leshers narrowed the number of targets in the case from 178 pseudonyms.
"By the compromise we arrived at of providing some, but not all, of what was initially subpoenaed from us, it's clear that this case has been part of settling the law around the tension between the right of people to voice their opinions anonymously and people to be able to confront those who have actually libeled them. That tension is likely to be ongoing in a world where more and more of our lives happen online."
Tolles said a Topix analysis three years ago indicated that about 70 percent of the defamatory comments included in the Leshers' petition belonged to a handful of IP addresses. He said his company was happy to help those who believe they have been libeled but "the key was that people didn't see us with a soft touch."
At the time, Tolles said his company received a handful of requests from law enforcement officials looking for information on a case or from individuals.
When the suit was first filed, the Leshers said that the information from Topix led them to three Internet service providers, Hughes Communications, America Online and Birch Communication.
The couple had said Birch immediately responded to their subpoena. The company disclosed that the IP addresses corresponding to posts made by the pseudonym "ilbedipt" were registered to Apache Truck & Van Parts.
"We just got lucky," Mark Lesher said at the time, adding that though "illbedipt" only posted about 10 times from the Birch IP address, he said that pseudonym also posted hundreds of times from another IP address registered to Hughes.
The Leshers had said Hughes was cooperative but indicated that because it is a satellite company, it required more information that the Leshers tried to secure from Topix. AOL said it erased the necessary information after 90 days.