A Texan couple who were anonymously abused on an internet forum have won $13.8 million in damages for defamation - In what could be a landmark ruling for freedom of speech online.
Mark and Rhonda Lesher were awarded the sum by the District Court of Tarrant County, after being called sexual deviants, molesters and drug pushers on Topix.com boards created to discuss the couple's sexual assault arrest and trial in 2008.
The couple were cleared of all charges against them in January 2009 and subsequently the couple filed their civil lawsuit against the anonymous posters in February 2009.
Upon doing so a Texan judge ordered Topix to turn over all identifying information about the anonymous posters, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.
These unique numbers assigned to personal computers alerted authorities to businesses owned by the husband of the woman who accused the couple of sexual assault in 2008.
'This vindicates us,' said Mark Lesher, reported the Texarkana Gazette.
'This is vindication for all the scurrilous, vile, defamatory statements that caused us to be indicted, to be tried, that caused us to move out of town and my wife to lose her business.'
The Lesher's lawsuit investigation led to six parties being named as defendants in an amended petition, according to ABC News.
They were Shannon Coyel, the couple's accuser from the original criminal trial in 2008, her husband Gerald Coyel and his brother James Coyel.
In addition, the suit also named the business Apache Truck & Van Parts in Kennedale, Texas and two employees there Charlie and Pat Doescher.
Finding in the Lesher's favour the court has ordered Jerry Coyel to pay Mark Lesher $5.1 million for mental anguish and loss of his reputation.
It also ordered Shannon Coyel and Charlie Doesher to pay $1.7 million to Mr Lesher, according to the jury.
Furthermore, Jerry Coyel was ordered to pay Rhonda Lesher $3.169 million for mental anguish, loss of her reputation and the loss of her beauty salon business in Clarksville.
Also, it compelled Shannon Coyel and Charlie Doesher to pay Mrs Lesher $1.056 million each.
Neither the Coyels or the Doeshers could be reached for a comment.
The jury in the defamation lawsuit heard that since the ultimately unfounded rape allegations were heard in 2008, a total of 25,000 comments on 70 threads on Topix message boards were posted onto the Internet.
'If the award is upheld, then people will think twice about what they say,' said Ryan Calo, a privacy law tutor at Stanford Law School.
'Defamation is one area of law in which a jury or court have to figure out how much damage has been done.
'It's not a car accident where you can calculate medical bills and how much work was lost after an injury. There's something more ephemeral in a reputation.'
Calling into question the effect of this ruling on free speech, Calo acknowledged the growth of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
'Everyone knows people say crazy things on the Internet, especially when they do it anonymously.'
When the Lesher's filed their 365-page lawsuit three years ago, they were accused of murder, pedophilia and drug taking.
Even though they had been exonerated of all charged against them in January, they still had to leave their homes and businesses as a direct result of the abuse online.
Naming the 179 pseudonyms used to post what they believed constituted defamatory messages, the Lesher's served Topix with a subpoena to obtain the IP adressess.
Topix responded that the request was too much but a judge in California, where Topix is headquartered ruled that they had to release any identifying information related to the suit.
At the same time he granted Topix a protective order on their information and lawyers and Topix narrowed the search for targets.
They discovered that 70 percent of the postings on Topix came from only a narrow number of IP addresses.
Going forward with the investigation they discovered that the pseudonym 'ilbedipt' was registered to Apache Truck & Van Parts.
'Once they got it down to a small number of people who were vociferous, I'm not surprised they were able to get a libel judgment,' said Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix to ABC News.
As well as facing financial ruin as a result of their actions, the Coyels are facing a malicious prosecution suit for conspiring to convict the Leshers of a false crime.
The trial by jury is expected in August.
FUCK THIS WORLD... I'M OUT