Google Wins Lawsuit Over Search Results–Maughan v. Google

By Eric Goldman

Maughan v. Google Technology, Inc., 2006 WL 2874791 (Cal. App. Ct. Oct 11, 2006)

In 2004, Mark Maughan sued Google over the way that Google crafts the site description part of its search results. As the minority opinion in this case describes it:

Mark G. Maughan and Brown & Maughan (the firm is included in my references to Maughan) filed this class action against Google Inc., seeking damages and injunctive relief for libel, products liability, and unfair business practices on the ground that a Google search for “Mark Maughan Accountancy” (or a variation on that theme) generates a list of websites “suggesting” he was disciplined by the California Board of Accountancy for “gross negligence” and accepting a contingent fee for the preparation of tax returns, which he says are “veritable scarlet letters in the accounting world.” Maughan concedes he has been disciplined for other wrongful conduct, and that the allegedly libelous search results showed his name and, separated by ellipses, statements describing misconduct by other accountants in a listing of disciplinary actions created by the Board of Accountancy.

Not surprisingly, Google adopted its typically aggressive litigation strategy and went on the counteroffensive by filing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike. In an unreported Feb. 2005 decision, the trial court granted that motion. Not only did Google squelch the lawsuit, but it became eligible for attorneys’ fees and costs. Google requested $112k but the trial court cut that to $23k.

In this decision, the appeals court upholds both the anti-SLAPP motion to strike and the award of $23k. Thus, this lame lawsuit has been quickly crushed (not surprising given its total lack of merit) and the plaintiff got stuck with an extra $23k expense for its efforts (and was lucky not to have to pay the full $112k–the trial court’s haircut was pretty arbitrary). Plaintiffs beware–ill-conceived lawsuits against search engines can be expensive!