By Laura Parker, USA TODAY
Legal analysts say the Sept. 19 award by a jury in Broward County, Fla. — first reported Friday by the Daily Business Review — represents the largest such judgment over postings on an Internet blog or message board. Lyrissa Lidsky, a University of Florida law professor who specializes in free-speech issues, calls the award "astonishing."
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Lidsky says the case could represent a coming trend in court fights over online messages because the woman who won the damage award, Sue Scheff of Weston, Fla., pursued the case even though she knew the defendant, Carey Bock of Mandeville, La., has no hope of paying such an award. Bock, who had to leave her home for several months because of Hurricane Katrina, couldn’t afford an attorney and didn’t show up for the trial.
"What’s interesting about this case is that (Scheff) was so vested in being vindicated, she was willing to pay court costs," Lidsky says. "They knew before trial that the defendant couldn’t pay, so what’s the point in going to the jury?"
Scheff says she wanted to make a point to those who unfairly criticize others on the Internet. "I’m sure (Bock) doesn’t have $1 million, let alone $11 million, but the message is strong and clear," Scheff says. "People are using the Internet to destroy people they don’t like, and you can’t do that."
The dispute between the two women arose after Bock asked Scheff for help in withdrawing Bock’s twin sons from a boarding school in Costa Rica. Bock had disagreed with her ex-husband over how to deal with the boys’ behavior problems. Against Bock’s wishes, he had sent the boys to the boarding school.
Scheff, who operates a referral service called Parents Universal Resource Experts, says she referred Bock to a consultant who helped Bock retrieve her sons. Afterward, Bock became critical of Scheff and posted negative messages about her on the Internet site Fornits.com, where parents with children in boarding schools for troubled teens confer with one another.
In 2003, Scheff sued Bock for defamation. Bock hired a lawyer, but he left the case when she no longer could afford to pay him.
When Katrina hit in August 2005, Bock’s house was flooded and she moved temporarily to Texas before returning to Louisiana last June. Court papers that Scheff and her attorney David H. Pollack mailed to Bock were returned to Pollack’s office in Miami.
After Bock didn’t offer a defense, a Broward Circuit Court judge found in favor of Scheff. A jury then heard Scheff’s arguments about damages. Pollack did not seek a specific amount for the harm he says Scheff’s business suffered.
"Even with no opposing counsel and no defendant there, $11 million is a huge amount," says Pollack, adding that Scheff is considering whether to try to collect any money from Bock. "The jury determined this was a significant enough issue. It’s not just somebody’s feelings are hurt; it’s somebody’s reputation is ruined."
Bock says that when she moved back to her repaired house over the summer, she knew the trial was approaching but did not know the date. She says she doesn’t have the money to pay the judgment or hire a lawyer to appeal it. She adds that if the goal of Scheff’s lawsuit was to stifle what Bock says online, it worked.
"I don’t feel like I can express my opinions," Bock says. "Only one side of the story was told in court. Nobody heard my side."