The other day we talked about possible defamation via eBay feedback, and now there’s another defamation suit based on comments made on the Internet. This time, T & J Towing in Kalamazoo, Michigan alleges that a college student’s Facebook group called “Kalamazoo Residents against T & J Towing” is costing the business lost contracts and “substantial” revenue.
The towing company is suing Justin Kurtz, a 21-year-old Western Michigan University student, for $750,000; the suit also requests an order prohibiting Kurtz from making “any further libelous and slanderous written claims” about T & J Towing.
Background of the Lawsuit
Kurtz started the Facebook group in February after having had his car towed from an apartment complex; Kurtz insists that he had a valid parking sticker attached, and alleges that his car was broken into and the sticker removed so it could be towed.
The Facebook group currently has over 10,000 members, some of whom tell similar stories to that of Kurtz’s regarding alleged unethical towing.
Richard K. Burnham, the attorney for T & J Towing calls these allegations “undocumented, unprosecuted, unproved and unpunished.” Without proving that the car was broken into and the sticker removed, says Burnham, Kurtz is liable for defamation.
Michigan Defamation Law
Michigan follows much of general defamation law by requiring a plaintiff to show that a published statement made by another person is false and harmful to the person bringing the claim. It is also important to note that in Michigan, there is no “defamation per se” when the statements were made against a business; that is, just because a statement alleges criminal activity, it is not automatically considered defamatory if made against a business.
One defense to defamation in Michigan is “opinion and fair comment privileges,” but a statement can still be considered defamatory if it implies underlying false facts. On the other hand, as noted by the Citizen Media Law Project: “If you state the facts on which you are basing your opinion, and the opinion you state could be reasonably drawn from those truthful facts, you will be protected even if your opinion turns out to be incorrect.”
The case of T & J Towing v. Kurtz, if it comes to trial, could hinge on that last sentence. A court may look to the facts underlying Kurtz’s opinion of what happened in his situation in the framework of the “totality of the circumstances surrounding the statement and its publication to determine how a reasonable person would view the statement.”
Seeing as the Facebook group is the basis of the lawsuit, the court could also consider the number of members and the comments made by them as part of the “totality” in determining whether Kurtz’s statements are defamatory.
Who do you think should win?