Defamation is that cause of action many people consider, but which is very difficult to prosecute. To show defamation, you have to show what the other person was thinking. You have to show a bad intent. In Hawbecker v. Hall, No. SA-14-CV-1010 (W.D. Tex.), the plaintiff did show defamation. It was a strange case. A woman in Colorado became convinced that Paul Hawbecker, who stayed with her and her daughter one night many years before, had molested her daughter and taken photos of the daughter. Michelle Marie Hall started a Facebook web page called, “Please help me stop a child molester!” Ms. Hall lives in Colorado and Mr. Hawbecker lives here in San Antonio. The mother messaged Hawbecker’s friends, family and others to warn them about him. She liked his employer, which apparently gave his employer access to the webpage.
The Plaintiff was a karate instructor. Customers started avoiding him. He was removed from teaching children and girls. Soon, he was fired. His romantic life suffered. So, the instructor sued Ms. Hall for defamation. Ms. Hall could not afford a lawyer, but she argued that a court in San Antonio would not have jursidiction over her. She lived in Colorado. The court disagreed. It looked at various factors, the essence of which was her attempts to contact persons in Texas on Facebook to tell them about Mr. Hawbecker supposedly molesting young girls. Those contacts gave the court jurisdiction.
The plaintiff moved for summary judgment, which the court granted. Ms. Hall’s story was contradictory. She claimed there was a Sheriff’s investigation, but there was not. She claimed to have pictures, but the provenance of the alleged picture was very dubious. It was not clear what the picture even represented, said the court. Worse for the defendant, Ms. Hall claimed she did not try to contact anyone on Facebook, but her FB posts showed different. In any lawsuit, credibility is critical. If you lose it, you are done. And, then the judge noted this: “the affidavit was replete with strange, conflicting and changing versions of events from Ms. Hall and her daughter.” The judge is saying the defendant’s story simply was not credible. So, the court granted summary judgment. It later held a trial just to determine damages.
It noted that accusing someone of molesting a child is probably the greatest harm a person can inflict, short of violence. Even though the court recognized that Ms. Hall had limited financial resources, it found general damages of $250,000. It also awarded $100,000 in punitive damages. The court found this sort of defamation was defamation per se. That is, it was so defamatory that no evidence of the harm of the slander was necessary. The harm was readily apparent, said the court. It turned Mr. Hawbecker’s life upside down and cost him at least one job. The defendant’s conduct, said the court, was deplorable and unacceptable. “In the age of social media, what we say on the Internet matters, and accusations of severe misconduct carry potentially severe consequences,” concluded the court. Yes, indeed.