Legal analysts say the
Sept. 19 award by a jury in Broward County, Fla. - first reported
Friday by the Daily Business Review - represents the largest such
judgment over postings on an Internet blog or message board.
Lyrissa Lidsky, a University of Florida law professor who
specializes in free-speech issues, calls the award "astonishing."
Lidsky says the case could
represent a coming trend in court fights over online messages
because the woman who won the damage award, Sue Scheff of Weston,
Fla., pursued the case even though she knew the defendant, Carey
Bock of Mandeville, La., has no hope of paying such an award.
Bock, who had to leave her home for several months because of
Hurricane Katrina, couldn't afford an attorney and didn't show up
for the trial.
"What's interesting about
this case is that (Scheff) was so vested in being vindicated, she
was willing to pay court costs," Lidsky says. "They knew before
trial that the defendant couldn't pay, so what's the point in
going to the jury?"
Scheff says she wanted to
make a point to those who unfairly criticize others on the
Internet. "I'm sure (Bock) doesn't have $1 million, let alone $11
million, but the message is strong and clear," Scheff says.
"People are using the Internet to destroy people they don't like,
and you can't do that."
The dispute between the two
women arose after Bock asked Scheff for help in withdrawing Bock's
twin sons from a boarding school in Costa Rica. Bock had disagreed
with her ex-husband over how to deal with the boys' behavior
problems. Against Bock's wishes, he had sent the boys to the
Scheff, who operates a
referral service called Parents Universal Resource Experts, says
she referred Bock to a consultant who helped Bock retrieve her
sons. Afterward, Bock became critical of Scheff and posted
negative messages about her on the Internet site Fornits.com,
where parents with children in boarding schools for troubled teens
confer with one another.
In 2003, Scheff sued Bock
for defamation. Bock hired a lawyer, but he left the case when she
no longer could afford to pay him.
When Katrina hit in August
2005, Bock's house was flooded and she moved temporarily to Texas
before returning to Louisiana last June. Court papers that Scheff
and her attorney David H. Pollack mailed to Bock were returned to
Pollack's office in Miami.
After Bock didn't offer a
defense, a Broward Circuit Court judge found in favor of Scheff. A
jury then heard Scheff's arguments about damages. Pollack did not
seek a specific amount for the harm he says Scheff's business
"Even with no opposing
counsel and no defendant there, $11 million is a huge amount,"
says Pollack, adding that Scheff is considering whether to try to
collect any money from Bock. "The jury determined this was a
significant enough issue. It's not just somebody's feelings are
hurt; it's somebody's reputation is ruined."
Bock says that when she
moved back to her repaired house over the summer, she knew the
trial was approaching but did not know the date. She says she
doesn't have the money to pay the judgment or hire a lawyer to
appeal it. She adds that if the goal of Scheff's lawsuit was to
stifle what Bock says online, it worked.
"I don't feel like I can
express my opinions," Bock says. "Only one side of the story was
told in court. Nobody heard my side."