Illinois Supreme Court Says Woman Deceived by Fake Online Relationship Can’t Sue for Misrepresentation -– Bonhomme v. St. James

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

Bohomme v. St. James, 2012 IL 112393 (May 24, 2012)

Most people take for granted that people aren’t 100% truthful when interacting online. On one end of the spectrum, people make misstatements that are widely acknowledged to be harmless and victimless (for example, someone may tell me that “this was a wonderful blog post”). On the other end of the spectrum, people engage in subterfuge with the intent of gaining a financial benefit. (See this long Verge article for an expose of the seedy underbelly of internet marketing: “Scamworld: ‘Get rich quick’ schemes mutate into an online monster.”)

This situation was somewhat different. The plaintiff, Paula Bonhomme, engaged in a purely online relationship with a fictitious character (“Jesse”) created by the defendant, Jenna St. James.

Background: The details of the relationship provide a window to the spectrum of peoples’ activities online, and the amount of energy that people invest in their subterfuge. Bonhomme and St. James met on the “Deadwood Boards,” a chatroom dedicated to the HBO series by the same name. A couple of months later, St. James created the persona of “Jesse,” who also posted on the boards and began a relationship with Bonhomme:

Plaintiff and Jesse began an online romantic relationship that lasted until July 2006. In addition to exchanging emails, Jesse and plaintiff exchanged personal photos, handwritten letters, and gifts. They also spoke regularly on the telephone, with defendant using a voice-altering device to disguise her female voice. [wow]

During this same period, defendant continued to maintain a relationship under her own name with plaintiff. In addition, defendant created a universe of approximately 20 fictional online characters either related to or involved with Jesse, including an ex-wife, a son, various family members, a therapist, and friends living both in the United States and abroad. These characters communicated with plaintiff from separate and distinct email accounts and even sent photos, handwritten mail, and packages from different states and foreign countries. For her part, plaintiff sent gifts totaling more than $10,000 to defendant, Jesse, and various other characters.

The story gets wackier. Bonhomme made plans to visit Jesse in person. “Jesse” cancelled the rendezvous, and St. James informed Bonhomme that Jesse had attempted suicide. Six months latter, Bonhomme and Jesse made plans to move in together. This too was derailed. This time, St. James informed Bonhomme that Jesse had died of liver cancer. After Jesse’s death, St. James continued to interact with Bonhomme, “communicating with her on a daily basis.” They actually met in person in Colorado “to visit some of Jesse’s favorite places.” Finally, St. James ended up visiting Bonhomme at her home in California. During this trip, the fiction unraveled, and Bonhomme’s friends ended up confronting St. James about “the fictional nature of the universe of people that [St. James] had created.”

Bonhomme sued, asserting claims for defamation, infliction of emotional distress, fraudulent misrepresentation, and false light.

The court’s opinion: Due to a procedural issue that’s not relevant here, the sole issue on appeal was whether Bonhomme could assert a fraudulent misrepresentation claim against St. James. The court answers in the negative, citing to the fact that the relationship between the two is purely personal in nature:

When all is said and done, what lies beneath this case is two private persons engaged in a long-distance personal relationship. To be sure, it was a personal relationship built wholly on one party’s relentless deceit, but it was a purely personal relationship nonetheless. Indeed, all of the hallmarks of ordinary human relationship are present: correspondence, conversation, intimacy, trust, mutual beneficence, emotional support, affection, disappointment, and even grief. And just as importantly, there is absolutely nothing of the commercial, transactional, or regulatory at work. Plaintiff and defendant were not engaged in any kind of business dealings or bargaining, and the veracity of representations made in the context of purely private personal relationships is simply not something the state regulates or in which the state possesses any kind of valid public policy interest.

___

The case generated a ton of media interest. (See coverage here from ABC, the Chicago Tribune, and Jezebel.) The legal question is not a particularly novel one, and as the court notes, “not a difficult question to answer” in the context of this case.

Three quick observations:

1. The court does not address Bonhomme’s claims for infliction of emotional distress. She was procedurally barred from asserting them, but that would seem like the obvious route to take for a plaintiff in this scenario.

2. This case is reminiscent of the Lori Drew case in some ways, except that the Drew cases ended in tragedy. Both cases illustrate the difficulties in finding legally recognizable causes of action in these types of scenarios.

3. Most interesting to me was the extent of energy and emotional investment that went into a relationship that was spawned on a TV show message board and that took place mostly online but eventually transitioned off-line.

Other coverage:

Batavia woman can’t be sued for fake online relationship

Related:

Why We Lie (WSJ)

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