Media & Communications Law

Courtney Love's win in 'Twibel' suit by her ex-lawyer is upheld by appeals court

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A California appeals court on Monday OK’d a jury’s verdict in favor of Courtney Love Cobain in a landmark “Twibel” lawsuit over claimed libel per se in a tweet.

It was brought by a former lawyer for the celebrity, Rhonda Holmes, and her law firm. The lawsuit was reportedly the first defamation suit over a tweet to go to trial in the United States, say stories in Hollywood Reporter and Spin. Holmes, who did not contest that she was a public figure, argued that what Love said in the tweet at issue required the jury to find the comment had been made with malice.

However, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal disagreed. It said in an unpublished opinion (PDF) that the jury could have found that Love believed what she said was true, even though the tweeted information was found to be false and could well have injured Holmes’ professional reputation.

After the death of her husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Love had come to believe that his estate, she herself and the couple’s daughter had been defrauded of millions by various persons, explains the opinion, which refers to the singer and actress as Cobain.

Holmes investigated Love’s claims of fraud in 2008 and 2009, then said in a statement published by the New York Post on April 7, 2009, that money was missing and she expected to file suit within a month.

When no suit was filed, Holmes “explained to Cobain that her computer had been hacked. Holmes also told Cobain that Cobain’s former counsel had threatened her, and that she had been accosted in a parking lot,” the opinion says. “Holmes further said that $140,000 had been stolen from her bank account, that she had been the victim of credit card fraud, and that her phone was tapped. Holmes attributed these events to her April 2009 statement in the New York Post and the fraud conspiracy in general.”

After May 2009, Love did not hear from Holmes again. The two disagreed about whether Holmes quit or was told by Love’s assistant not to continue with the representation. But no termination letter was sent and, as far as Love knew, no lawsuit was prepared, the court notes, even though a statute of limitation was looming.

It was against this background that Love sent a tweet to two individuals, which she deleted less than 10 minutes later. It suggested that Holmes had been “bought off,” the opinion says. Love testified that she never meant to suggest that Holmes had actually taken a payment, but believed at the time, based on the attorney’s explanation of the delay in filing suit, that Holmes, as the appellate panel puts it, “had been ‘gotten to’ or ‘compromised’ in some manner.”

Thus, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to Love, the court said the jury could well have found that Holmes failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Love knew her tweet contained false information or had serious doubts about its truth.

Related coverage: “Defense verdict for Courtney Love in ‘Twibel’ case brought by her former lawyer”

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