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Facebook “likes” admissible but punitives cut in defamation case

A dog trainer who claimed he was defamed by online accusations of animal abuse was entitled to tell a jury how many people “liked” the offending Facebook page, a federal judge has ruled.

Nevertheless, U.S. District Judge James Cacheris said the jury’s “grossly excessive” $60,000 punitive damages verdict in favor of the dog trainer should be cut by three quarters. Cacheris says the defendant can either accept the reduction of punitives to $15,000 or take a new trial.

Cacheris’ post-trial rulings come in a case with a long back story. Dog trainer Russell Ebersole served time in a federal prison for providing the government with bomb-detecting dogs that could not detect bombs. In 2011, local authorities in Frederick County began investigating claims of animal abuse at Ebersole’s facility.

Believing she had witnessed such abuse herself, a Loudoun County horse breeder began posting graphic accusations of animal cruelty against Ebersole on her Facebook page. Bridget Kline-Perry claimed dogs were kicked, choked and shocked at Ebersole’s facility.

Ebersole denied the claims and an Alexandria federal jury awarded Ebersole $15,000 in compensatory damages for defamation and business conspiracy and $60,000 in punitive damages.

Kline-Perry asked for a new trial in part because Ebersole had put on evidence of 5,000 “likes” appearing on her Facebook page. She argued the “likes” evidence invited speculation about whether the people who “liked” her page had actually read the statements she posted about Ebersole.

Denying the motion, Cacheris said the number of “likes” was a measure of the website’s popularity, helping to show how widely disseminated her accusations were and demonstrating her intent to reach a large audience.

There are limits to the usefulness of the “likes” evidence, however, according to Cacheris. When Ebersole’s lawyer suggested the jury award him $20 for every Facebook “like,” the suggestion was “ungrounded and arbitrary,” Cacheris wrote.

Cacheris found the $60,000 punitive damage award, eight times the amount of compensatory damages for libel, was “constitutionally suspect.” Kline-Perry’s conduct, the judge found, was not “extraordinarily reprehensible.”

Among the factors the judge considered: the harm was economic not physical, the statements at issue were an isolated incident limited to a four-day period, and Kline-Perry was motivated to protect animals rather than to harm Ebersole.

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