Torts: Statute of Limitations on Internet Defamation

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Larue v. Brown, 693 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 18 (App. Div. I, August 19, 2014) (J. Gould)

DEFAMATORY STATEMENTS MADE IN EXCESS OF A YEAR PRIOR TO FILING OF COMPLAINT BUT REPUBLISHED WITHIN THE YEAR ARE NOT BARRED BY ONE YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

Defendant David Brown was married to Plaintiff Mindi Larue. They were divorced with child custody issues. It got ugly. Each then remarried. In November 2008, defendant Brown's new wife, defendant Sarah Brown, published articles on a website alleging plaintiff Mindi's new husband, plaintiff Jeremy Tucker, was a molesting one of the children to the first marriage. The website was designed to allow readers to comment on the articles and to allow defendant to reply to the comments. Such a discourse went on with defendant repeating allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia and referring back to the November 2008 articles up until June 5, 2009.  Plaintiffs sued for defamation on December 23, 2009. Defendants multiple attempts to dismiss the suit based upon ARS sec. 12-541 one year statute of limitations were denied by the trial court and the jury returned a verdict of $150,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages against defendants.  The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.   Arizona has adopted the Uniform Single Publication Act (ARS sec. 12-651(A)) which limits a plaintiff to one cause of action for defamation or invasion of privacy where the statement at issue is published in a newspaper, book, magazine or broadcast over radio or television.  The purpose is to protect a defendant from being sued for each copy of a book or newspaper containing the identical defamation.  The court found this rule applies to defamatory statements posted on the internet even though the statute makes no mention of this medium.   Next the court noted that a republishing of the material in a new edition, editing and republishing it or placing it in a new form is a separate publication giving rise to a separate cause of action in conformance with Restatement (Second) of Torts sec. 577(A).  Applying this rule to the internet the court held that “mere modification to the way the information is accessed as opposed to changes in the nature of the information itself, does not constitute republication.” Here the updates and changes to the website in question were republications “because they related to the original allegedly defamatory material and they altered both the substance and the form of the original material.”

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