A jury in Union County, Georgia recently returned a $404,000 verdict against a woman who posted false and malicious allegations on Topix.com against a man she barely knew. The woman, Sybil Denise Ballew, posted that Gene Cooley was a drug addict, criminal and pedophile among other things.
The libelous postings on Topix.com, a community website, came shortly after Cooley’s fiancé was murdered by her ex-husband. The consequences of Ballew’s actions were so severe that Cooley lost his job and had to leave town in search of work. Ballew’s comments even caused Cooley’s fiancé’s family to treat him with suspicion in regards to his fiancé’s death.
At trial, Ballew testified that she used multiple screen names on Topix.com to bash Cooley’s reputation and attack those who defended him. When asked to explain why she posted such things, Ballew told jurors “I can tell a pervert.”
Cooley’s attorney was able to track down the person responsible by using the internet protocol (IP) address of the computer used to generate the postings. Topix.com turned over the IP address information after Cooley’s attorney obtained a subpoena. The IP address then led straight to Ballew.
Under Georgia law, a person who falsely tells others that an individual has committed a crime may be liable for committing the tort of defamation (slander or libel). In such cases, it is generally presumed that the defamed individual has been injured and it is then the jury’s task to decide the amount of money that should be awarded.