N.J. Court: Out-of-Stater Can Be Sued for Libel for Web Postings

August 6, 2007

An out-of-state resident can be sued for libel in New Jersey for statements posted to a Web site forum because his comments targeted a New Jersey resident, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.

The ruling in Danna Goldhaber et al v. Charles Kohlenberg veers from decision by other states’ courts that have ruled that posting libelous material in open forums does not vest jurisdiction in the victim’s state.

However, in this case, the New Jersey court held that that fact that the comments were directed toward a New Jersey resident, the out-of-state defendant could have expected to face charges in that state.

The plaintiffs, who are father and daughter, reside in New Jersey, while the defendant Kohlenberg is from California and he has no contacts of any type with New Jersey. In 1999, plaintiff Richard Goldhaber joined an Internet newsgroup devoted to information concerning cruises and cruise ships; plaintiff Danna Goldhaber joined the group in 2002. The defendant Charles Kohlenberg ialso eblongs to the same online newsgroup.

Plaintiffs alleged that, commencing in January 2003, defendant began to post on this newsgroup a series of messages that were “extremely derogatory” about them. These messages accused plaintiffs of base activities, including incest and bestiality. Some of the messages contained cruel references to the hearing limitations of plaintiff Danna Goldhaber.

The plaintiffs filed suit seeking damages for libel. After they attempted to serve the defendant in California, Kohlenberg consulted with a California attorney who advised him that New Jersey did not have jurisdiction over him. Based upon that advice, he did not respond to plaintiff’s suit, and default was entered against him for compensatory damages of $2,644.11 and punitive damages of $1,000,000.

Other states’ courts that have declined to find jurisdiction upon the basis of mere posting of messages upon an open online forum have done so either on the basis that there was insufficient evidence that the defendant had directed or focused the defamatory comments to the forum state or on the basis that the site in question was passive, as opposed to active or interactive, the opinion notes. Consideration of whether the defamatory comments were directed or focused to the forum state has been described as a “targeting-based” analysis.

In this case, the court said there was evidence that the author of the messages did, indeed, target them to New Jersey. The author not only knew that plaintiffs resided in New Jersey, he made specific disparaging references to their specific municipality. Certain of his postings were responses to plaintiffs’ replies to the offending comments. He also made insulting comments about their municipality’s police department. In addition, he referred to plaintiffs’ neighbors in their apartment complex and even posted their address.

“Conduct of that nature and its connection to New Jersey ‘are such that [defendant] should reasonably [have] anticipate[d] being hailed into court’ in New Jersey,” the decision states, citing a 1980 Supreme Court case World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson.

“Indeed, we would deem it against the policy of our courts to deny these plaintiffs a forum in which to seek redress,” the court concluded.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.