Ohio Court Has Jurisdiction Over Non-Resident Internet Defamation Case

June 11, 2010

The Supreme Court of Ohio has ruled that an Ohio trial court may assert jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant in a defamation case involving Internet postings, according to a slip opinion released by the Supreme Court on June 10.

In Kauffman Racing Equip. L.L.C. v. Roberts, the defendant is alleged to have posted disparaging statements on the public forum areas of several Internet sites with the intention of damaging an Ohio-based company’s business and personal reputation. The Court’s 4-2 majority decision, which affirmed a ruling of the 5th District Court of Appeals, was authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.

In 2006 Kauffman Racing Equipment (KRE) of Knox County, which specializes in the manufacture and sale of race car parts, sold an auto engine block to a Virginia resident, Scott Roberts, who has never been to Ohio.

Eight months later, Roberts called KRE to complain that the engine block was defective. KRE owner Steve Kaufman had Roberts ship the block back to Ohio, where his examination revealed that the block had been modified by Roberts, a fact that Roberts subsequently admitted. KRE declined to buy back the engine block because of the modifications made by Roberts, and shipped the block back to him.

During a two-month period following KRE’s refusal to replace the engine block, Roberts posted a number of comments that were highly critical of KRE products and business practices and of Steve Kauffman personally on the public-forum pages of several Internet sites dedicated to automobile racing equipment and related subjects, according to information released by the Court.

These included postings on the Web sites PerformanceYears.com and PontiacStreetPerformance.com, and in an item description on the internet auction Web site, eBay Motors.

In some of those comments, Roberts indicated that it was his intention to get even for his economic loss on the engine block transaction by negatively impacting KRE’s reputation via his postings on Web sites frequented by car racing enthusiasts.

After receiving inquiries from at least five Ohio residents triggered by Roberts’ Web postings, KRE filed suit against Roberts in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas, alleging that Roberts had injured the company’s reputation and business by posting false and malicious statements on the Internet and seeking damages.

Roberts filed a motion to dismiss KRE’s claims against him on the basis that an Ohio trial court could not exercise personal jurisdiction over him because he was a Virginia resident with no legal presence in Ohio. The trial court granted Roberts’ motion to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction.

KRE appealed. The 5th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that Ohio’s “long arm” statute conferred jurisdiction on the trial court to hear KRE’s complaint.

In the majority opinion affirming the judgment of the court of appeals, Justice Pfeifer wrote that KRE had established both of the necessary elements that: 1) Ohio’s long-arm jurisdiction statute and supporting civil rule confer jurisdiction over Roberts on the trial court; and 2) exercising that jurisdiction to require Roberts to answer for his alleged tortious conduct in an Ohio court does not violate his constitutional right to due process.

“Roberts contends that Ohio’s long-arm statute does not confer personal jurisdiction because he did not direct the alleged tortious statements to Ohio or publish them here,” wrote Justice Pfeifer “Despite the fact that Roberts’s publication of his comments did not emanate from Ohio, those comments were received in Ohio. … Roberts posted his allegedly defamatory statements on the Internet, ostensibly for the entire world to see. How much of the world saw the comments is unknown; but we do know that at least five Ohioans saw Roberts’s statements. The comments were thus published in Ohio.”

Justice Pfeifer’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor and Robert R. Cupp.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell entered a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, stating that in his view the actions taken by Roberts in this case did not establish the “minimum contacts” with Ohio necessary to meet due process requirements set by prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the issue of personal jurisdiction.

2008-1038. Kauffman Racing Equip., L.L.C. v. Roberts, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-2551.

Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-2551.pdf

Source: Ohio Supreme Court

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