It’s one thing for a disgruntled customer to post a bad product review online, but it’s quite another to lie about a competitor. So, what happens when a forum moderator disparages a competitor on a message board? Where does agent principal law fall on the status of Internet forum moderators? Are they considered representatives of a business? Bodybuilding.com LLC and Syntrax, a nutritional supplement company, are currently embroiled in an imbroglio involving this issue.
Derek Cornelius and SI03 filed a lawsuit against Bodybuilding.com LLC and Gaspari Nutrition, Inc., et al over derogatory posts made by two anonymous users – deserusan and INGENIUM — on the Bodybuilding.com forum. Four posts published by the two anonymous users prompted a civil suit in an Idaho District Court.
What Sparked The Defamation Lawsuit?
According to the complaint, deserusan claimed that Mr. Cornelius’product, Syntrax, “elicited hepatitis-like symptoms and caused liver failure in multiple subjects and has been documented in peer reviewed journals,” among other things. INGENIUM responded to a posting made by SI03 officer Jeff Fanger, claiming SI03 “pimped” its Matrix 5.0.
Plaintiffs Use Agent Principal Law To Argue Forum Moderators Are Company Reps
Mr. Cornelius alleged that deserusan and INGENIUM acted as agents of Bodybuilding.com since deserusan (aka Daniel Pierce) was hired by Gaspari as a part-time customer service representative after the derogatory comment appeared on Bodybuilding.com’s website. The suit argues INGENIUM was also an agent because Bodybuilding.com did not take action to remove his or her offending comment against Syntraxmade.
Plaintiffs Argue That U.S. Defamation Immunity For Website Operators Shouldn’t Apply In This Case
Mr. Cornelius contended Gaspari and Bodybuilding.com were engaged in false advertising and therefore in violation of the Lanham Act. Further, Mr. Cornelius alleged 47 U.S.C. § 230, the Communications Decency Act defense to libel, did not protect Bodybuilding.com from liability.
Judge Rules: In This Case, Moderators Aren’t Company Agents
The judge disagreed with Mr. Cornelius.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the Idaho district of United States District Court said that even though deserusan was hired by Gaspari as a customer service representative, the time frame in which he made disparaging remarks against SI03 and Syntrax occurred before the date he was hired by Gaspari. Additionally, Judge Winmill noted that even though deserusan and INGENIUM ultimately became discussion moderators on Bodybuilding.com, “Moderators are agents for the limited purposes of moderating discussions, but this does not make them all-purpose agents.”
Judge Winmill also stated:
At most, Bodybuilding.com represented to the public that moderators had the authority to oversee and edit forum discussions. This does not translate into a representation that forum moderators represent Bodybuilding.com when stating personal opinions on a forum. Rather, a close link between an agent’s tortious conduct and that agent’s apparent authority must exist in order for the principal to be liable… Here, this close link does not exist.
Besides, You Can’t Win A Defamation Lawsuit If You Can’t Prove Harm
Furthermore, SI03 failed to prove that the disparaging remarks made by deserusan and INGENIUM caused harm to SI03 — a requirement to recover damages. Also, SI03 failed to present any evidence that Bodybuilding.com deliberately published the allegedly demeaning comments against SI03. Couple that with the fact there was no way to tell how many people actually saw and acted upon the comments deserusan and INGENIUM made.
The court ultimately granted summary judgment to Bodybuilding.com and Gaspari Inc.
For more information on agent principal law as it relates to forum moderation, contact a qualified Internet lawyer.