Judge Overturns $13.8M Award to Lawyer and Wife for Online Libel
Posted Jun 14, 2012 7:37 AM CST
By Debra Cassens Weiss
A lawyer and his wife plan to appeal after a Texas judge overturned their $13.8 million jury award for Internet libel.
Judge Dana Womack said the April verdict for Mark and Rhonda Lesher was not supported by the evidence, but she didn’t elaborate on her reasoning, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. Rhonda Lesher called the verdict a “slap in the face” in an interview with the newspaper. "I just felt gut shot," she said.
The suit had claimed more than 25,000 false online comments about drug dealing and sexual perversions had forced Mark Lesher to close his Clarksville law firm and Rhonda Lesher to close her beauty salon there.
A post-trial motion had argued that no evidence tied the defendants to the posts, the Star-Telegram says. The motion also claimed there was no evidence of mental anguish, injured reputations, or lost beauty salon profits.
One of the libel defendants is a former legal client who had accused the Leshers and their ranch hand of sexually assaulting her. The Leshers and their employee were acquitted in the assault case in 2009. The other defendants were the accuser’s husband and two of their employees.
Lesher told the newspaper that she and her husband have spent more than $1 million defending the criminal charges and pursuing suits for libel and malicious prosecution. They sold their ranch to pay the legal costs.
The libel defendant who had accused the Leshers of sexual assault praised the judge’s decision. "This is how the judicial system is supposed to work," she told the Star-Telegram. She added that the Leshers would not have been able to collect the portion of the award she was supposed to pay—about $2 million. "They would never get a dime from me because I don't have a dime to give them," she said.
Hat tip to the Texas Lawyer’s Tex Parte Blog.