Dennis SkleyA federal appeals court is reviving a lawsuit targeting a website for models because the site did not warn users that there were rapists reading the site in search of their next victim.
The Communications Decency Act (CDA), the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, did not immunize the website Modelmayhem.com from a suit brought by an aspiring model who said she was drugged, raped, and filmed by two men during a phony 2011 audition.
“Congress has not provided an all purpose get-out-of-jail-free card for businesses that publish user content on the Internet, though any claims might have a marginal chilling effect on Internet publishing businesses”
Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, and other online companies had told the court (PDF) that such a ruling would have a chilling effect on the Web.
In a court filing, they said that the CDA shields website operators “from the risks, burdens, and uncertainty of lawsuits that would hold them liable for hosting or facilitating online exchanges of third-party information that may result in harm.”
But the federal appeals court, which issued a similar ruling in 2014 but set it aside to rehear the case again, wasn’t buying the argument.
The CDA, one of the foundational laws that has allowed the Internet to flourish, protects online outlets from legal liability for the content that third parties publish on it, the court noted.
But here, the owner of the website, Internet Brands, had obtained knowledge that there were rapists who trolled the site for women, pretended they were agents, and raped and filmed the women who thought they were going for a job interview, the court ruled.
A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously decided that the lawsuit may move forward because the plaintiff’s “negligent failure to warn claim does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Instead, the suit essentially states that Internet Brands breached a California law requiring that entities having a “special relationship” with their customers warn about dangerous situations.
The notification, the court speculated, could have occurred via an e-mail to users or a posting on the site.
“Congress has not provided an all purpose get-out-of-jail-free card for businesses that publish user content on the Internet, though any claims might have a marginal chilling effect on Internet publishing businesses,” the court ruled (PDF).
The lawsuit by the unidentified victim “Jane Doe,” the court held, “has nothing to do with Internet Brands’ efforts, or lack thereof, to edit, monitor, or remove user generated content. Plaintiff’s theory is that Internet Brands should be held liable, based on its knowledge of the rape scheme and its ‘special relationship’ with users like Jane Doe, for failing to generate its own warning.”
The modeling site, which hosts more than 600,000 profiles, denies all the allegations.
Internet Brands of California, however, has sued the site’s previous owner for allegedly failing to disclose its knowledge of rapists reading the site hunting for new victims, the court said.
Two rapists have been successfully prosecuted.
The appeals court kicked the case back down to the trial court to determine whether the lawsuit can be tried under California’s failure to warn law, which usually applies to psychotherapists.
“The CDA does not bar Jane Doe’s failure to warn claim. We express no opinion on the viability of the failure to warn allegations on the merits. We hold only that the CDA is not a valid basis to dismiss Jane Doe’s complaint,” the court ruled.