@LibelGirl: Call yr atty ASAP

In an astonishing overreaction, Horizon Realty Group, a large Chicago landlord, has filed a defamation lawsuit against a former tenant, Amanda Bonnen, over this tweet sent on her (now defunct) Twitter account:

@JessB123 You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s ok.

Assuming the apartment was not, in fact, “moldy,” I think the law may well be on Horizon’s side here. Bonnen’s Twitter stream was public, and a false statement that harms a business can be judged “defamation per se,” meaning that the plaintiff does not need to prove the details of damages. It’s another lesson that social media make many of our previously private conversations public, with potentially serious consequences. (Twitter, of course, is protected from the suit under Section 230.)

But as I’ve said before, just because you can sue doesn’t mean you should. In at least three ways this represents an epic fail for Horizon:

    1. Bonnen was an infrequent Twitter user with few followers, variously reported as 15, 20, and 22. While this may technically have been a public statement, in reality very few people probably saw it — until now.

    2. Libel lawsuits like this often make companies look like bullies. (Recall the “McLibel” case for an extreme example.) And because this case involves the currently white-hot topic of Twitter, the news is spreading extra-fast.

    3. Company executive Jeffrey Michael made things even worse by admitting to the Chicago Sun-Times that the company had made no effort to contact Bonnen before filing suit, but explaining — you can’t make this stuff up — “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization”. Wow. Is that the attitude you look for in a landlord? That statement from the company in a major newspaper must be ten times worse publicity than a passing tweet.

Talk about making a mountain out of a mold-hill. (Tweet tweet!)

UPDATE: Horizon sent out a press release late yesterday that considerably thickens the plot. Apparently, Bonnen had already sued Horizon over a leak in her apartment, and Horizon found the tweet when doing its “due diligence.” I don’t know why Horizon brought its suit as a separate action instead of a counterclaim. But it makes their over-reaction a little more understandable. (In context, it may also make it easier for Bonnen to argue that the tweet is mere opinion or exaggeration and not actionably false.) Oh, and the release claims that the “sue first” quote was, of course, “tongue in cheek” and “taken out of context.” It still sounds obnoxious, but now it turns out they didn’t sue first. All of which, I think, just proves my original point about how unwise this all was if the company wanted to preserve its reputation.

2 Responses to “@LibelGirl: Call yr atty ASAP”

  1. If @JessB123 had made this frustrated statement directly to some of her friends at a busy coffee shop in a voice loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear. Would that be defamatory? If not, what is the difference?

  2. John: That might be actionable too, though in the real world unlikely to lead to suit for largely practical reasons. More importantly, the tweet is materially different. It is public to the whole world, not just whomever is sitting nearby. It is permanent, not ephemeral. And it is indexed, so in principle it can make its way into search results about Horizon Realty (I assume that’s how Horizon found it to begin with). Assuming the statement was untrue, Horizon’s legal claim is quite plausible. Dumb, but plausible.