Watch What You Tweet: 4 Twitter Lawsuits

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With over 95 million messages sent via Twitter every day, you might be asking yourself, “Is anybody out there?” Say the wrong thing, though, and you might find out exactly who's listening – when you receive a subpoena. Here are four real Twitter-related court cases that might make you think before you tweet.

1. Siegal v. Kardashian

According to online sources, celebrities like Jennifer Hudson, Mandy Moore, Kelly Clarkson, and Jersey Shore’s Snooki are losing weight by gobbling down specially baked cookies as part of the incredibly popular Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet. However, one name you will not find on the list of celebrity cookie monsters is Kim Kardashian.

In October 2009, the Siegal Cookie Diet website linked to a story that reported Kardashian was on the cookie weight loss plan. When the socialite heard that Siegel had linked to the article, she and her lawyers felt it implied she was endorsing the diet, which she was not, because she has a contract to promote a different weight loss solution, QuickTrim. Siegal took down the offending link and thought that was the end of the situation. But Kardashian turned to her Twitter account to set the record straight with her (then) 2.7 million followers, saying, “Dr. Siegal’s cookie diet is falsely promoting that I’m on this diet. NOT TRUE! I would never do this unhealthy diet! I do QuickTrim!” She then went on to tweet, “If this Dr. Siegal is lying about me being on this diet, what else are they lying about?”

Considering how many people follow Kardashian on Twitter, plus the fact that she is a paid endorser of a competing weight loss product, Siegal felt the tweets had the potential to hurt their business. In December 2009, they filed a defamation suit against Kardashian claiming, “She is in the public eye and when she makes a comment people hear it… that negative impact could cost us tens of millions of dollars.” They went on to say she had a “commercial motive” for defaming the cookie diet since she is an endorser of QuickTrim.

So far, the case is still pending. But according to some legal experts, Kardashian's statement that the cookie diet is unhealthy could be construed as her personal opinion, therefore it would be protected as Free Speech. However, if a court believes she might have been coached by her QuickTrim employers that the cookie way is the wrong way to lose weight, that could cost her.

2. La Russa v. Twitter

There are many parody celebrity Twitter accounts out there, but most clearly state that they’re fake. That wasn’t the case with a fake account set up using the name of St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa.

In April 2009, the owner of the @TonyLaRussa Twitter account, which had only 4 followers at the time, tweeted a few unkind things about some Cardinals’ players. But what got the real La Russa fired up was a tweet saying, “Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident or dead pitcher…” The remark, appearing to have come from the coach, referred to La Russa’s 2007 DUI in Florida, as well as the June 2002 death of pitcher Darryl Kile in a Chicago hotel room after suffering a heart attack. That was the final straw for La Russa, who filed a lawsuit against Twitter for various claims, including cybersquatting, Trademark Infringement, and Trademark Dilution.

About a month after the suit was filed on May 5, 2009, Twitter took the fake account down. Perhaps coincidentally (perhaps not), on June 11 of that year, Twitter announced their “Verified Account” program, a process by which celebrities can prove they are the real tweeters and help fans avoid confusion. A few weeks later, on June 26, La Russa’s lawyers voluntarily dropped their suit.

Since then, the real La Russa has been using his Twitter account (@TonyLaRussa) to inform nearly 12,000 followers of Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (www.arf.net). Or at least we can only assume it’s the real La Russa because, ironically, it’s not a verified Twitter account.

3. Simorangkir v. Love

Dawn Simorangkir, AKA The Boudoir Queen, has had an impressive career as a model, make-up artist, and now fashion designer. But according to Simorangkir, her business has been severely damaged by Courtney Love, “The Queen of Noise,” and her popular Twitter account.

After the two had worked amicably together designing custom dresses for Love, the relationship soured after some disagreements over the amount of money Simorangkir charged for the clothes. At 12:55am on the morning of March 17, 2009, Love started a series of social media posts railing against Simorangkir, starting with a lengthy post on MySpace, numerous tweets throughout the rest of the day, and even hitting the comments section of the popular handcrafted product site Etsy, where Love initially discovered Simorangkir's work. Over the course of her day-long rant, Love accused the designer of stealing, lying, being a drug dealer and addict, being a homophobe and racist, having been arrested for prostitution, and even threatened “you will end up in a circle of scorched earth hunted til your dead.”

On March 29, 2009, Simorangkir filed a lawsuit against Love with six separate legal complaints, including libel, breach of contract, and emotional distress (she later dropped the emotional distress complaint). After months of legal wrangling, Love's lawyers submitted a 217 page motion - referencing everything from Perez Hilton to printed pages from Wikipedia - asking to have the case dismissed. They argued that Love's First Amendment Rights were being violated, and that Love did not reference Simorangkir by name, therefore making it difficult to prove whether Love's online statements were true or false, a necessary requirement to claim libel.

Despite the motion to dismiss, the judge has allowed the case to proceed, setting it to start on February 8, 2011.

Not only will the case be a landmark as far as social media liability is concerned, but Love's lawyers are planning to use an unusual strategy - that Twitter is so addictive and provides such immediate gratification, that Love couldn't help but post without fully thinking through the consequences of her actions. Many experts agree this “social media insanity” plea will be a tough sell in court, but if it's successful, it could easily set a precedent for future Twitter-related cases yet to come.

You're probably thinking, “But I'm not famous. No one will ever notice one of my lowly little tweets.” Don't be so sure about that...

4. Horizon Group v. Bonnen

After a leaky roof at her Chicago apartment building in March 2009, Amanda Bonnen filed a lawsuit in June against the building's management company, Horizon Realty Group, claiming the company had not properly removed mold that had developed in her unit as a result of the leak. While lawyers for Horizon were doing research for the case in July, they came upon a tweet Bonnen sent back in May when she said to a follower, “@JessB123 You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.”

At the time, Bonnen only had 20 Twitter followers and, because this was a reply to one person in particular, very few of those followers probably even saw the tweet about Horizon. But none of that mattered to the company; in their words, “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.” So they filed the first tweet-related lawsuit in history, claiming Bonnen’s tweet was considered libelous, and asked for $50,000 in damages, estimating each of her followers was worth about $2500 in potential lost revenue to the company.

When the case went to court in January 2010, the judge quickly dismissed it, claiming that the tweet was too vague to be considered libel. The very fact that Twitter is a worldwide service, and that Bonnen had not specifically mentioned the Horizon Realty in question was in Chicago, Illinois, or even in the United States, made it too easily confused with any other company of the same name anywhere else.

While it was short-lived, the case has become a textbook example for public relations firms to show companies how not react to the occasional bad-mouthed tweet. If Horizon had ignored Bonnen’s tweet, it would have only been seen by, at most, her 20 followers. But because they pressed the issue, countless people have since read the message in connection with the lawsuit, possibly hurting Horizon's reputation more than if they had just let it go.

Image Credits: Kardashian: © Jason Buehler/Retna Ltd./Corbis; La Russa: © Greg Fiume/Corbis; Love: © Leszek Szymanski/epa/Corbis

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January 20, 2011 - 10:10am
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