Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled, a few days ago, that parents can be held liable for the mischievous (or worse) conduct of their children on the internet. The facts of the case, as described by the Georgia Court of Appeals, are as follows: In early May 2011, Dustin Athearn, who was 13years old, and his friend, Melissa Snodgrass, agreed to “have some fun at a classmate’s expense” by creating a fake Facebook page for that person. Dustin selected Alexandria (“Alex.), a fellow seventh-grader, as their target, and Melissa agreed. Melissa, posing as Alex, created a Yahoo e-mail account to use to create a new Facebook account, and gave that information to Dustin. On May 4, 2011, using a computer supplied by his parents for his use, and using the family Internet account, Dustin posed as Alex to create a new Facebook account, using the Yahoo e-mail address and the password Melissa had supplied. For the profile photo, Dustin used a photo that he had taken of Alex at school, after altering it with a “Fat Face” application. After Dustin created the account, both Dustin and Melissa added information to the unauthorized profile, which indicated that Alex had racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation. Dustin and Melissa also caused the persona to issue invitations to become Facebook “Friends” to many of Alex’s classmates, teachers, and extended family members. Within a day or two, the account was connected as Facebook “Friends” to over 70 other Facebook users. Dustin and Melissa continued to add information to the persona’s profile and caused the account to post status updates and comments on other users’ pages. Some of these postings were graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive and some falsely stated that Alex was on a medication regimen for mental health disorders and that she took illegal drugs.
Alex soon suspected that Dustin was involved, because she recognized the profile photo as one Dustin had taken at school. Alex’s parents, Amy and Christopher Boston, approached the school’s principal, Cathy Wentworth, for help. On May 10, 2011, Wentworth called Dustin and Melissa to her office; they admitted their involvement, and each signed a written statement. In his written statement, Dustin stated: "In homeroom, Melissa and I decided to make a Facebook [page] under
someone’s name and she said, “Who do we hate in this room?” I said “I don’t know, Alex Boston?” So we made up a username and a password for it. We went home and made the Facebook [page]. I chose Alex Boston because she followed me around and my friends did not like her and told her to leave me alone. I went home and made Alex Boston’s Facebook [page]. Melissa went home to her house and pretended to be Alex. . . . I went home and posted on Alex’s [fake] Facebook [page for] about 4 or 5 days. Melissa went and posted on it the same time."
Wentworth (the principal) assigned Dustin and Melissa to in-school suspension for two days for their harassment of Alex. She called their parents and also sent home a “Middle School Administrative Referral Form” to explain the disciplinary action. The Referral Form included the following “Description of Infraction: [Dustin] created a false Facebook page in another student’s name, pretended to be that person, and electronically distributed false, profane, and ethnically offensive information.”
Obviously these acts of internet bullying caused Alex to suffer from significant distress. Alex’s parents sued Dustin’s parents for the defamation that Dustin posted on Facebook. Dustin’s parents tried to have the case dismissed, but the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the case should go to a jury. The court explained that “Under Georgia law, liability for the tort of a minor child is not imputed to the child’s parents merely on the basis of the parent-child relationship. Parents may be held directly liable, however, for their own negligence in failing to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct which poses an unreasonable risk of harming others.” The Court held that the standard for imposing liability upon a parent for failing to supervise a child is generally a question for the jury when the circumstances support an inference that the parents were on notice that, absent their intervention, injury was likely to result from the child’s conduct.
No one wants to have a mean child. Perhaps knowing that you can be sued when your child is a bully (on the internet or elsewhere) will cause more parents to supervise their children. The case is Boston v. Athearn, Georgia Court of Appeals, Case No. A14A0971, decided on October 10, 2014.
Posted By David Lefkowitz on: 15-Oct-14 at 8:05 am  |  Send comment to David Lefkowitz