Indiana case likely social-media precedent

Published Feb 22, 2018 at 4:00pm

The legal community took notice last week of what might be the first-in-the-nation case of court-ordered damages awarded over a defamatory social media post. The case shows that people no matter where they live should be very careful what they post on social media.

The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette reported that Zerlie Charles was awarded $6,000 in Scott Superior Small Claims Court after the court ruled she was defamed in a Facebook post by Vickie D. Vest, who had dated Charles’ son before he died in 2015. Vest reported Robert Charles’ truck stolen a few days after his death and, in a Facebook post, accused Zerlie Charles of the theft.

A different trial court judge initially ruled the case failed to meet the standard for defamation. But Zerlie Charles’ attorneys won a reversal in October at the Indiana Court of Appeals, which also noted that Vest admitted she stole the truck. The appellate panel remanded the case for a determination of money damages for Charles.

The plaintiff’s attorneys asked the appellate court to publish its memorandum decision, arguing there were few defamation per se rulings in case law, and that the popularity of Facebook “makes these facts and legal conclusions of substantial public importance,” and “publication of this opinion can caution clients against the improper use” of Facebook.

“A lay person probably feels they have a First Amendment right to say whatever they want to, but that’s definitely not the case if you’re harming people with what you’re saying,” plaintiff’s lawyer said. That’s something worth noting.