Be Careful What You Post — You Could Find Yourself In A Courtroom Far, Far Away…
September 14, 2018
A recent case from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas shows that despite the fact that the internet has been with us for some time, the laws of the Commonwealth that were formed in an analog world have not always caught up. In the recent Philadelphia case of Fox v. Smith, et. al., Feb. Term 2018, No. 1438, the Trial Court found that defendants being sued for defamation were properly sued in a county where the defamatory communication was read and understood under prior Pennsylvania case law. By way of background, this case involved Joy Michelle Fox, a democratic candidate for mayor of Chester Heights, Pennsylvania in Delaware County. Several persons supporting Ms. Fox’s opponent formed a website that, among other things, accused Ms. Fox of being criminally charged in North Carolina with passing bad checks. Ms. Fox contended that the defendants “cherry picked” information from search websites that gave results that were close to Ms. Fox’s name, but clearly described someone else. Ms. Fox alleged that the spreading of these false allegations harmed her reputation.
While it seems that all of the Parties involved are primarily based in Delaware County, Ms. Fox brought her suit in Philadelphia. The defendants objected to the venue of the litigation as improper. This is a common fight to have in the beginning of cases as often each party wishes to have the case heard in the forum that they believe is most favorable to their position. Ms. Fox’s justification for suing in Philadelphia was that because the information was available on the internet and she presented at least one friend that read and understood the communication as defamatory in Philadelphia, venue was proper (Philadelphia is generally accepted amongst the legal profession as a highly favorable forum for Plaintiffs). The Trial Court agreed because under Pennsylvania case law, which the trial court was bound to follow, venue was proper where the communication was read and understood to be defamatory. This legal precedent was established before the internet was even a concept and for that reason, the trial court found that there was a “substantial issue” on venue and granted the defendants the right to an immediate appeal on the issue. Generally, one has to wait until a case is concluded to appeal but there are certain instances where an appeal can be heard immediately. In this instance, the trial court realized that it was bound to follow precedent, but also recognized the implications of doing so and is essentially asking the Pennsylvania appellate courts to examine the issue.
Hopefully, the Pennsylvania Superior Court will examine this case and add clarity. However, until that happens, the lesson to be learned here is that when you place something on the internet, it can be read by anyone, anywhere and it can lead you to be called into a forum you might not expect. So, unless you are keen on potentially spending a lot of time in Erie County defending litigation, be careful what you place on the internet. It is also important to note that an issue of venue can be critically important in a case and it is an issue that if it is not raised properly, it is waived. Therefore, you should contact a lawyer immediately when receiving any papers relating to litigation to ensure that you are timely raising all issues.