In personal injury law, legislators and judges have tended to limit the circumstances under which companies or individuals could be held responsible for the wrong-doing of third-parties. Limited exceptions exist when defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff and the harm was foreseeable.
Third-party civil lawsuits filed after a victim suffers a criminal attack are most often in the context of premises liability. That is, the property owner or possessor owed a duty to keep the property in reasonably safe condition for the plaintiff, was aware the risk of criminal attack existed, and failed to mitigate that risk or alternatively warn the plaintiff. Personal injury lawsuits stemming from this same basic set of facts have been brought for many years, with varying degrees of success.
Then came the age of the Internet. The courts have been reticent to characterize website developers or managers as anything akin to “property owners,” and have declined to make them responsible for content posted by third parties under the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. 230(c). It’s this same act that has shielded sales websites when third parties post advertisements to lure patrons of underage prostitutes or victims of other crimes.
However, the recent case of Jane Doe No. 14 v. Internet Brands, Inc. may represent a shift for some plaintiffs under certain circumstances. Here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an assault victim who was targeted by sexual predators known to the site’s owners may proceed with failure to warn litigation against the owners/operators, and further her lawsuit is not precluded by the Communications Decency Act. The reason is because she is not asserting liability for any content posted by a third party that defendants failed to remove. She is not asserting the owners/operators are responsible as “published speakers.” Rather, she is asserting the defendant failed to warn her about a dangerous condition, and she suffered grave harm as a result.
Our New York City negligence attorneys will be closely watching how this case unfolds, because it could hold widespread implications for other claims by those harmed at the hands of others who use the Internet to bait victims of violent crimes.
According to court records, plaintiff was an aspiring model who posted her profile – along with 600,000 other aspiring models – on a website called modelmayem.com. The site purports to be a kind of social network, connecting models to agents, photographers and others in the industry.
When plaintiff joined the site, defendants had owned the site for three years. The previous owners were aware that two men in Florida had used the site on previous occasions to troll model profiles and, on more than one occasion, had reportedly lured aspiring models to Miami under the guise of a job. Instead, women were drugged, raped and filmed for purposes of creating pornography.
Soon after the new owners purchased the site, they became aware of this duo. The new owners even sued the previous owners for failure to disclose the potential liability that could have arisen from this.
And yet, they posted no information on the site warning users of potential danger, even though the suspects were still at-large.
Subsequent to this, plaintiff fell victim to the scheme. She flew to Miami, was drugged, sexually assaulted and filmed.
The assailants were later arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However, the victim contends the website owners should have done more to protect her and other users.
Her case is significant for the fact that it could establish a higher degree of duty owed by website owners/operators to those who visit.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673.
Jane Doe No. 14 v. Internet Brands, Inc., Sept. 17, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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Benn v. New York Presbyt. Hosp. – Pedestrian Injury Case to Proceed, Aug. 30, 2014, New York City Negligence Lawyer Blog