Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Claim Against Website for Failure to Warn Users Resulting in Rape

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, has recently issued a ruling that may provide some ability to bring a claim for civil damages against website operators who allow sexual predators to use their site to lure victims.  The case was entitled, Jane Doe No. 14 v. Internet Brands, Inc. dba Modelmayhem.com Case No. 12-56638.

Facts of the Case:

An aspiring model used a website purported to provide modeling opportunities.  She was lured from California to South Florida under the guise of a modeling audition.  While in Florida, she alleged was drugged, raped and filmed.  She alleged that the website owners knew that their site was being used as a tool to lure young women into sexual assaults by the very perpetrators involved in this incident.  She brought causes of action under California law for negligent failure to provide a warning notice to users of the site about such prior incidents.

Legal Issues Involved In Claim of Liability for Negligence Resulting in Sexual Assault:

The defendants brought a Motion to Dismiss the claim, which is a Federal Court procedure whereby a judge is asked to dismiss the case based upon a failure to state adequate facts to support a legal claim for damages.  Defendants argued that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) prohibiting suits against website owners or other internet content providers for information on their sites that was provided by third parties.  The trial court granted the motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Appellate Court, without ruling on the merits of the negligence claim, held that the CDA was not a valid basis to dismiss the claim.  The court held as follows:

"Barring Jane Doe’s failure to warn claim would stretch the CDA beyond its narrow language and its purpose. To be sure, Internet Brands acted as the “publisher or speaker” of user content by hosting Jane Doe’s user profile on the Model Mayhem website, and that action could be described as a12 DOE V. INTERNET BRANDS, INC. “but-for” cause of her injuries. Without it, Flanders and Callum would not have identified her and been able to lure her to their trap. That does not mean the failure to warn claim seeks to hold Internet Brands liable as the “publisher orspeaker” of user content, however. Publishing activity is a but-for cause of just about everything Model Mayhem is involved in. It is an internet publishing business. Without publishing user content, it would not exist. As noted above, however, we held in Barnes that the CDA does not provide a general immunity against all claims derived from third-party content."

It will be interesting to see if this matter proceeds to trial and, if plaintiff is able to obtain a verdict against defendant, whether the defendant will appeal the decision.  This may have precedent value for other victims of sexual assault against website owners and operators who allow their sites to be used by sexual predators.