No Liability for Linking to Defamatory Content--Life Designs Ranch v. Sommer

No Liability for Linking to Defamatory Content–Life Designs Ranch v. Sommer

Photo credit: internet connect hyperlink // ShutterStock

Photo credit: internet connect hyperlink // ShutterStock

The plaintiffs run Life Designs Ranch, a substance abuse aftercare program that the defendant’s son participated in. Unhappy about billing issues, the defendant Sommers threatened Life Designs that “I am willing to get legal with this. Are you? I would hope that the most important thing to you is your reputation. We all know how easily reputations can be destroyed, without the legal system even getting involved.” Keeping his promise, the defendant built a “spoof” gripe site purportedly in Life Design’s first-person voice at (which now rolls over to the official Life Designs site). The plaintiffs sued for defamation plus the typical ancillary torts.

In this ruling, the appeals court affirms summary judgment dismissal for the defendant. I’ve recently mentioned how difficult it is to win a case against a gripe site in the modern era, and the court illustrates the point by giving wide deference to the spoofed content. The court says (cites omitted):

Mr. Sommer did not attempt to pass his website off as Life Designs’ official website; the “About Us” section is clear, using “seems” as a word of apparency. Thus the website suggested opinions, not facts. Furthermore, Mr. Sommer’s website did provide a hyperlink to Life Designs’ official website and expressly said that the link was to “the website for Life Designs Ranch.” From a policy standpoint, allowing businesses to sue any unhappy consumer for what they posted online for defamation would stifle freedom of speech. The internet is a medium where statements expressing opinions in the context of reviewing businesses and services are often found. The medium and context of Mr. Sommer’s website denotes it is opining about the quality of Life Designs’ business…

The court also says there’s no evidence the allegedly defamatory statements caused damage:

The sparse evidence shows (1) a decline in referrals following publication of Mr. Sommer’s website despite an increase in traffic to Life Designs’ official website, (2) some hearsay by Mr. Garrett about an interaction between Mr. Sommer and Mr. Balagna regarding not making referrals to Life Designs, and (3) no other apparent changes accounting for the referral decline. Mr. Garrett’s declaration opining Mr. Sommer’s website caused the decline in referrals is conclusory. Mr. Garrett limited his analysis to Life Designs’ official website. No evidence shows anyone who visited Life Designs’ website visited or was influenced by Mr. Sommer’s website. Life Designs has not referred to or produced anyone who did not choose Life Designs because of Mr. Sommer’s website.

The spoof site outlinked to an organization called HEAL that allegedly said defamatory things as well. The court says Sommers isn’t liable for HEAL’s remarks:

a URL is not qualitatively different from a mere reference. Therefore, we hold Mr. Sommer did not republish allegedly defamatory material when he posted on his website: “For more info click or cut and paste the link below”

I haven’t systematically tracked the defamation-liability-for-linking cases, but the court cites several cases that I haven’t read, suggesting this conclusion has some precedential support. Certainly the result is consistent with the most well-known case on the topic, the uncited Canada Supreme Court case of Crookes v. Newton, [2011] 3 SCR 269. Unfortunately, the court doesn’t discuss 47 USC 230, which also immunizes the linker from linking to defamatory content as we saw in the Vazquez v. Buhl case (and, as recapped in this post, several other cases). Thus, this case stands for the proposition that, as a matter of common law defamation, linking to defamatory content isn’t a “republication” of the content even if Section 230 does not apply.

Case citation: Life Designs Ranch, Inc. v. Sommer, 2015 WL 7015867 (Wash. Ct. App. Nov. 12, 2015)