A Georgia appellate court recently reached a decision that holds parents liable for their kids’ online activity—an unprecedented legal ruling, lawyers said. The parents of a 7th grader were deemed “negligent” after failing to get their son to delete a defamatory Facebook profile of a female classmate in 2011.
According to court documents, the boy and a friend of his created a fake Facebook account posing as the girl, which included altered photos of her, racist and promiscuous comments and photos, and claims that she was on medication and doing illegal drugs. They sent friend-requests to her classmates, teachers and family members, reaching 70 Facebook friends in two days.
When the girl and her parents discovered this profile, they complained to the school principal, who gave the boy two days of in-school suspension and informed his parents, who grounded him for a week. The profile, however, remained active for another 11 months until the girl’s parents urged Facebook to deactivate it. Her lawyer said that the school protected the boy’s confidentiality, preventing her parents from confronting his.
The courts held that the key question regarding negligence lies in the parent’s ability to anticipate harm as a result of the unsupervised activity.
“Given that the false and offensive statements remained on display, and continued to reach readers, for an additional 11 months, we conclude that a jury could find that the [parents’] negligence proximately caused some part of the injury [the girl] sustained from [the boy’s] actions (and inactions),” wrote Judge John J. Ellington in the opinion, handed down Oct. 10. Another part of the lawsuit sought to hold the parents responsible for allowing the page to be posted in the first place, which the appeals court dismissed.
Atlanta litigator Edgar S. Mangiafico, Jr., who represented the boy, said he will appeal the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court, noting that he couldn’t find a previous case where the parents were held responsible for failing to supervise their kid’s computer use regarding cyberbullying.
Atlanta attorney Natalie Woodward, who represented the girl, agreed that this was a novel outcome, saying that the ruling shows that in certain circumstances, parental knowledge triggers liability.
Good luck to high-schoolers ignoring their mom’s friend request now.
Image by Marco Packöeningrat, licensed under Creative Commons