In today's news of the absurd, Time Warner's
Over in Ohio, AOL member George Gillespie has filed a lawsuit against the Internet giant and two of his co-chatroom frequenters. As described on -- where else? -- Court TV, Gillespie accuses defendants Mike Marlowe, of Alabama, and Bob Charpentier, of Oregon, of inflicting upon him "severe emotional distress and physical injury that is of a nature no reasonable man could be expected to endure it." The alleged offenses -- actually, not terribly alleged, since the defendants agree that they "teased" and "razzed" -- took place in a chatroom titled "Romance: Older Men" over a period of some time.
As lawsuits go, though, this one looks pretty weak. For one thing, most of the plaintiff's allegations seem to hang on acts that took place offline: accusations that one of the chatroom frequenters drove to Ohio, photographed his house, and placed a picture of it on the Internet, and that someone illegally deprived him of his mail by submitting a change-of-address form to the local post office.
To this Fool, it would seem difficult to ascribe responsibility for those acts to AOL. (The defendants assert that the alleged acts never took place.) What's more, the case looks generally weak overall, since it seeks damages for "intentional infliction of emotional distress," a justifiably maligned notion.
To win a case on "emotional distress," a plaintiff generally needs to prove actual physical harm as a result of the alleged "distress" -- vomiting, weight loss, and so on, usually backed up by medical bills and diagnoses from licensed physicians. But as a general rule, plaintiffs alleging this offense are just out for (a) revenge and (b) a quick paycheck. The last thing they want to do is spend a lot of money paying doctors for the treatment that would be necessary to give their case some substance.
Moreover, the U.S. Communications Decency Act gives Internet service providers like AOL blanket immunity from lawsuits based on material published in its chatrooms, so long as that material is not authored by AOL itself.
In sum, this is a loser of a case; as far as liability goes, Time Warner investors have little to fear from it. Unfortunately, its very existence and progress toward an impending trial is cause for some worry. It's only a matter of time before copycat lawsuits begin pouring in, whether this one succeeds or not.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares in any company mentioned in this article.