Tyrion Lannister’s trial is over, but HBO’s still got a high-profile defamation lawsuit to conquer — the Mitre Sports v. HBO slander battle. Current Advantage: Mitre.
The Players In This Sports Defamation Lawsuit
Mitre Sports International
Mitre is a sports equipment manufacturer. The company is the exclusive soccer (football) ball sponsor of the English Premier League and Major League Soccer.
Home Box Office (HBO)
HBO is a cable network that produces a program called Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.
Back In 2008, HBO Aired A Special That Didn’t Paint Mitre In The Best Light
In 2008, HBO aired a Real Sports segment featuring Mitre called “Childhood Lost.” A heart-wrenching tale, “Childhood Lost” highlighted the hardships of kid labor in India. It began:
“We start with a sobering look at a practice that is clearly illegal, and was supposedly done away with years ago, and that’s child labor.”
Later in the broadcast, the reporter (not Gumbel) lamented:
“In the slums of India, children as young as six spend their days crouched on dirt floors stitching soccer balls together.”
Kailash Satyarth – a child rights advocate – added her sobering thoughts:
“They have no childhood. They have no freedom.”
Scenes of young children, supposedly stitching soccer balls for 5 cents an hour, added to the overall misery of the TV segment.
Good on HBO for exposing Mitre! Right?
Not so fast.
Today’s TV news producers aren’t exactly beholden to the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I know, I know – it’s shocking – but some TV-news producers have been known to bend the facts for ratings. (#sarcasm)
Mitre to HBO: You Egregiously Misrepresented Us, And You Know It; Prepare For A Defamation Battle.
Needless to say, Mitre was none too pleased with HBO’s Real Sports segment. In response to the show, the soccer ball company alleged misrepresentation. It argued that:
- The children shown “working” in the streets for 5 cents were not working for the company; they were helping their parents – a commonplace Indian value/tradition.
- Some of the children on film were not even stitching, but instead engaging in other activities that looked like stitching.
- Some of the scenes were staged.
Mitre didn’t waste time. The sports corporation quickly filed a defamation lawsuit against HBO. It accused the cable network of:
“intentionally and maliciously [perpetrating] a hoax on Mitre and the millions of viewers who watched the initial and subsequent HBO broadcasts and who have viewed the program on YouTube and other internet sites.”
Pre-Trial Litigation Information Could Help Mitre Win
It’s been six years since Mitre v. HBO kicked off. (Gigantic corporations, with in-house legal teams, tend to go at it for years; normal business defamation lawsuits wrap up much quicker.) Both parties are on the motion-and-hearing hamster wheel – trying to out-litigate each other – and during that time, interesting facts have percolated to the surface. For example:
- An HBO researcher testified that she couldn’t find a kid, in the neighborhood in question, who was under the age of 14, that “could stich a football.”
- Mitre presented evidence that HBO had, itself, questioned whether or not the scenes of the kids sewing soccer balls was “a product of Indian society, not necessarily an evil soccer ball company looking for balls on the cheap.”
- Some of the children that appeared on the program have since said that they were “induced to pretend to stich Mitre balls on camera and that those scenes were staged.”
But WAIT! There’s Another Twist; HBO May Have a Point
So far, HBO has argued substantial truth. The Network also contends that despite the bluster, Mitre has yet to pinpoint a specific defamatory statement. Touche.
And HBO may have a valid point. Especially since they littered the TV segment with disclaimers. For example, at one point in the program, the anchor said he didn’t “believe that Mitre wants it to happen, but that the subcontractors are a different story altogether.”
Judge Says The Trial Must Go On
The disclaimers, however, was not enough to convince the judge to toss the defamation case. Instead he reasoned:
“Because there are no undisputed facts in the record that establish what statements, if any, are defamatory, this Court cannot make any determinations on this issue as a matter of law. Rather, it is for the jury to determine first what the gist of the Segment is, and second, whether any statements therein are defamatory.”
Big Company Mitre Is Not A Public Figure
Under U.S. defamation law, different rules apply to different types of plaintiffs. Normal Joes and Janes only have to prove negligence in slander and libel lawsuits. Public figures (e.g., celebrities, famous people, politicians, etc.) however, have to prove actual malice.
Actual malice is harder to prove than negligence because the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant knowingly lied or, at least, did an abysmal job in gathering the information.
Whether or not a plaintiff is labeled a public figure depends on several factors:
- The Jurisdiction – Different states have different rules about who qualifies as a “public figure.” For example, some states say that anybody employed by the government is a public figure – including public school teachers.
- Case Facts – The facts of a case can play a big role in determining whether or not an individual or business is considered a public figure for the purposes of a defamation lawsuit.
- Case Law – In most circumstances, a plaintiff does not want to be deemed a “public figure” because actual malice cases are harder to win than negligence-standard slander and libel lawsuits.
Big Corporations Usually Considered Public Figures in Defamation Lawsuits – But Not In This One
Nine times out of 10, multinational corporations are considered “public figures” for the purposes of a defamation lawsuit. But Mitre’s lawyers managed to wrestle a favorable status assessment out of the judge, who assessed:
“the evidence shows that Mitre does not approach the status of being a household name or a celebrity in the community. First, Mitre has not sponsored any teams or leagues in the United States since 1999. Furthermore, Mitre’s sale and advertising of sports equipment is insufficient to make it a general purpose public figure.”
The judge also rationalized that Mitre was not a “limited-purpose” public figure because, in general, American citizens don’t feel the same way about soccer as they do baseball. As a result, “Mitre” isn’t exactly a household name in the United States – thereby disqualifying the sports company as a “public figure” for the purposes of this defamation lawsuit.
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Mitre v. HBO is not over yet – and we’ll be keeping an eye on this high profile defamation lawsuit.
A North Carolina jury ruled in favor of a software company that sued a competitor for unfair competition and business defamation. A product newsletter anchors this business-on-business lawsuit, and it serves as cautionary tale for what not to do when trying to gain market dominance.
Software Co. v. Software Co. – A Tale of Business-on-Business Defamation
EMove Inc and SMD Software Inc are direct competitors. Both companies make software programs used by self-storage/moving businesses. Several years ago, EMove did a mailer extolling the virtues of its products. In it, EMove mentioned rival SMD and made claims about EMove’s alleged superiority.
Now, it’s not unusual for competitors to call each other out in marketing materials, but there is a line that can’t be crossed. Here’s what EMove did wrong:
- Inflated the price of SMD’s products;
- Inaccurately stated what was and what wasn’t included in SMD’s services; and
- Inaccurately stated that SMD didn’t offer certain services when it did.
Notice how nothing on that list is an opinion. Under United States defamation law, opinion is not considered defamation, but making a false statement of fact is. If EMove would have said something general like, “Our customers think we’re better than the competition,” then it would have probably been in the clear. But SMD executives crossed the marketing Rubicon. Once they started making provably false statements about SMD, the defamation line was crossed.
In the lawsuit, SMD alleged:
- Tortious Product Disparagement,
- False Advertising (Lanham Act violations), and
- Various North Carolina fair competition laws.
This lawsuit is 6-years-old and originally included U-Haul. U-Haul litigated their way out of it early on – and it looks like doing so save that company a whole lot of money, because the jury said that EMove had to hand over $1.7 million for misleading customers about SMD via their product marketing materials.
Business-on-Business Defamation and Unfair Competition: What Are The Differences?
In today’s Internet-based marketplace, defamation and unfair competition often go together like strawberries and cream. Businesses clawing for market dominance engage in high-tech disparagement schemes; social nemeses sometimes give in to revenge urges in ill-reasoned online smear campaigns (it is known). If either happens to you, legal options are available. For example, you can:
1) File A Business Defamation Claim: File a business defamation lawsuit if the facts of your case fit. In order to move forward with a defamation lawsuit, you must be able to prove:
- Your competitor lied about you, your product or your company;
- The lie caused material harm or severe reputation harm;
- It was read or heard by more than one person;
- The statements were made negligently.
2) Allege Lanham Act Violations: The Lanham Act is the country’s chief intellectual property and business competition law. Many acts of unscrupulous competition fall under the Lanham Act; it’s best to talk to an attorney about your specific issues to see if you have a strong claim under this statute. The Lanham Act also covers intellectual property concerns, which can sometimes be used in business on business lawsuits.
3) Move Forward With Tortious Interference Claims: Tortious interference claims involve instances where one party interferes with an agreement between two other parties.
Contact a Business-on-Business Defamation Lawyer
Various state laws also apply in many unfair competition lawsuits. It’s best to speak with an attorney about the specifics of your situation to get a more nuanced read on your legal options.
In service of a Topix defamation lawsuit, a judge ordered an ISP to hand over personally identifiable information to a plaintiff. Do judges often force websites to hand over user data? Can you file an Internet libel lawsuit if you only know the screen name of your defamer? We’ll answer these questions – and a few others — below.
Anonymous Topix Defamation Case Study: School Critics v. John Doe
Internet Critics Voice Their Opinions Online
Some people avoid confrontation; other people welcome it, and still other folks prefer to air all of their opinions online. Sam Ferry, Rich Simpson and Michelle Tyler arguably fall into the last group – prolific Internet critics. One of their long-time targets was the Fox School District in Jefferson County, MO.
Critics Asked To Stop, But Didn’t
Last year, to no avail, school officials had formally asked the trio to tamp down their Internet missives. That said, nothing legally formal ever came of the tension between the school district and its critics – until January 15th.
Disparaging Comments Popped Up On Topix.com About Critics
In the middle of January, 2013, curious posts started appearing on popular online community portal – Topix.com. Left by various users with screen names like “seriously” and “must be drugs,” the disparaging content focused on nepotism in the district. They also mentioned the locally infamous trio of critics — Sam Ferry, Rich Simpson and Michelle Tyler. The posts lasted through May 15, 2013.
Many of the Topix comments were normal – though petty – quips we’ve all come to expect on forums. However, several of the posts — including accusations of bestiality, child porn and STDs — crossed the line. So, the trio of critics rightly decided to file an anonymous Topix defamation lawsuit.
Critics Believe That One Person Is Behind The Anonymous Posts
The plaintiffs believe one person – donning 13 different screen names – is behind the online taunting. And a judge ruled that the ISP must hand over certain information that will allow the plaintiffs to uncover said person in order to move forward with their Topix defamation case.
Executive Explains Topix.com Defamation Position
When asked about the suit, Chris Tolles, CEO and co-founder of Topix, explained that while his company is all for free speech, it is “not a free-for-all.” Interestingly, Tolles also revealed that:
- Topix.com honors nearly all court orders to hand over information, and
- Staffers delete about 1,000 of the 10,000 comments daily.
What Will The Plaintiffs Have To Prove, In This Anonymous Topix Defamation Case, To Win?
Unearthing the name of an anonymous defamer is step one in an Internet libel lawsuit. The next step is pleading one’s case (if it makes it to trial or before a judge). So, what do you have to prove to win a defamation lawsuit?
Libel and slander laws vary from state to state, but all are built around four defamation elements: truth, publication, harm and negligence.
- Truth: In order for a statement to be defamatory, it must be a false statement of fact. Opinions, under U.S. law, are not considered slanderous or libelous.
- Publication: In order for a statement to be defamatory, it must be published to more than one person.
- Harm: A statement is not defamatory if it doesn’t cause either monetary or reputation-related harm.
- Negligence: The plaintiff in a U.S. defamation lawsuit is responsible for proving that the defendant acted with negligence when publishing or speaking a false statement of fact. In other words, if the defendant can prove that he or she had every reason to believe the information was accurate, in many cases a judge will rule in his or her favor.
Opinion Is Not Defamation
Under United States law, opinion is not defamation. If someone calls you a “jerk,” it’s not defamatory. If someone writes on Topix.com that you’re “not a good person,” and you file a claim over it, there’s a good chance a judge will deem the post opinion and dismiss the Topix defamation lawsuit.
Anonymous Topix Defamation: Can You Uncover The Real Name Behind An Internet Handle
More often than not, people don’t use their real names online. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sue an anonymous defamer. Doing so simply requires an additional step. In most jurisdictions, if pleaded properly, judges will issue court orders compelling Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to hand over identifying information about anonymous posters, thereby allowing online libel plaintiffs to unearth the alleged defamers government name in order to move forward with the claim.
Contact A Lawyer With Anonymous Topix Defamation Experience
Are you dealing with an anonymous Topix defamation situation? Our online libel legal practice has handled countless cases where the plaintiff must first file a John Doe suit. In a way, you could say we know the niche better than most. You don’t have to let the disparaging comment stand. Get in touch today to learn more about your legal options.