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Court News Ohio

Sixth District: Raise Damages for Ex-Wife’s Facebook Falsehoods

A Youngstown man’s $100 defamation award was too low because the trial judge incorrectly assumed that the offending Facebook posts were read mostly in northwest Ohio where the man used to reside with his ex-wife, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

The Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed a Sandusky County Common Pleas Court decision last week and found that Brett Forinash is entitled to a new evaluation of his damages caused by a series of false claims made on social media by his ex-wife. The posts by Angela Weber starting in late 2012 pertained primarily to the ongoing court battle between the two regarding their child.

Forinash filed his lawsuit in 2013 based on Weber’s Facebook profile post that alleged he was “hooked on porn [and] watches dirty movies with teenage girls.” Forinash sought damages in excess of $25,000 as well as orders to have Weber remove the defamatory statements and refrain from further postings.

He later amended his complaint to seek damages for Weber’s “spoliation of the evidence” because she took down the offending posts after receiving his revised lawsuit.

Trial Court Finds Posts Not Significantly Damaging
The trial court granted summary judgment to Forinash, finding he was defamed, and awarded $100 in nominal damages. The court also provided Forinash $500 in punitive damages, finding that Weber acted with malice, and ordered her to pay $2,000 for Forinash’s attorney fees. The trial court didn’t address the spoliation claim.

Forinash appealed the decision to the Sixth District, maintaining the trial judge used the wrong standard to calculate damages and that he should have also received damages for spoliation of the evidence.

Writing for the Sixth District, Judge James D. Jensen noted the trial court’s rationale for the $100 was based on the view that Forinash’s standing in the community wasn’t tarnished because he now lives in Youngstown and Weber lives in Sandusky County “where the Facebook posts would primarily have been read.” The trial court also noted that Forinash didn’t lose his job or suffer any reduction in wages because of the posts.

Judge Jensen, however, agreed with Forinash’s argument that Facebook posts aren’t confined to a geographic region and that Forinash supported his claim by providing testimony that friends in North Carolina questioned him about Weber’s comments.

“Further, it would defy reality to conclude that a post on a social networking internet site such as Facebook is in any way limited in its geographic reach,” Judge Jensen wrote.

Remaining Trial Court Rulings Stand
The Sixth District rejected the rest of Forinash’s claims, finding the judge appropriately decided that $500 in punitive damages was an appropriate sanction for Weber. The Sixth District also stated that despite claiming that he incurred far greater than $2,000 in legal costs, Forinash provided no evidence that justifies any more than the fees awarded.

Judge Jensen also wrote that Forinash was able to procure all the false statements made about him by Weber on Facebook and used them to support his case. Because he obtained all the information, he suffered no damage when Weber took the posts down and isn’t entitled to any damages for spoliation.

The case was remanded to the trial court to reexamine the $100 damages award.

Judges Mark L. Pietrykowski and Thomas J. Osowik concurred in the decision.

Forinash v. Weber, 2017-Ohio-1076
http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/6/2017/2017-Ohio-1076.pdf
Civil Appeal from: Sandusky County Common Pleas Courts
Judgment Appealed From Is: Affirmed in part, reversed in part
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: March 24, 2017

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