A federal appellate court has upheld a ruling dismissing a libel lawsuit by cat breeders against the Internet service provider InMotion, which hosted a gripe site that contained allegedly defamatory posts by users.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said in its 23-page ruling that the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes Internet service providers like InMotion from defamation liability for material created by third parties. "Because InMotion was merely an ISP host," the court wrote, the "claims against InMotion fail as a matter of law."
The case stemmed from a libel lawsuit brought by Susan Johnson and Robert Johnson, who own the cat breeding business Cozy Kittens Cattery, against InMotion and two people who allegedly posted critical comments on the gripe site ComplaintsBoard.com. The Johnsons attempted to also sue the site, but wasn't able to serve it with legal papers, according to the ruling. The case was initially filed in state court in Missouri, and then transferred to federal court.
The posts on ComplaintsBoard.com allegedly included statements that the Johnsons kill cats, "rip off" cat breeders, steal kittens and are con artists, the court said in its written opinion.
While many courts have held that Web companies that offer a platform for user-generated posts are immune from liability for users' unlawful statements, one appellate court carved out an exception in a lawsuit involving Roommates.com. There, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Roommates.com could be sued for helping to match roommates based on race, sexual orientation and other unlawful criteria, but only because the site actively solicited the unlawful information.
In the Johnsons' case, the 8th Circuit held that InMotion had not done anything to encourage people to create unlawful posts. "The record contains no evidence that InMotion designed its website to be a portal for defamatory material or do anything to induce defamatory postings," the court ruled.
The appellate court also upheld a trial judge's dismissal of the Johnsons' lawsuit against two people who allegedly made the defamatory posts on the ground that those defendants lacked sufficient contact with Missouri to face suit in that state.