Thursday, July 2, 2009
Court: No Liability for MySpace for Sexual Assaults of Minor Users
By a MetNews Staff Writer
MySpace.com cannot be held liable to four teenage girls who were sexually assaulted by men they met through the internet social networking site, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
Affirming the decision of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joe W. Hilberman—who has since retired—Div. Eight held Tuesday that the site’s operator was shielded with immunity pursuant to the Communications Decency Act.
The appeal consolidated four cases which each involved one or more victims, each identified as “Julie Doe,” aged 13 to 15, who joined MySpace.com at some point between 2005 and 2006.
Each of the Julie Does allegedly met older men through the site and were later assaulted by those men at in-person meetings. Through their parents or guardians, the girls filed substantially identical causes of action against MySpace for negligence, gross negligence and strict product liability.
Their complaints, related at the trial court level, asserted that MySpace was aware that its service posed a danger to minors using its site and should have implemented safety precautions to protect minors from sexual predators. Hilberman sustained MySpace’s demurrer to the complaints based on the act’s grant of immunity.
The act provides immunity to any “provider or user of an interactive computer service” who is not responsible for “the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.”
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Tricia A. Bigelow noted a “general consensus” among federal courts and California’s intermediate appellate courts interpreting the act’s grant of immunity broadly when addressing facts and legal issues similar to those considered by Hilberman.
Although the Does characterized their claims against MySpace as being based on the site’s failure to adopt reasonable safety measures, Bigelow reasoned that they essentially sought to hold MySpace responsible for the communications between the Julie Does and their assailants.
“At its core, appellants want MySpace to regulate what appears on its website,” she said, by ensuring sexual predators cannot gain access to, and communicate with, minors through its service. But “[t]hat type of activity—to restrict or make available certain material—is expressly covered by [the act],” Bieglow explained.
She also rejected the Does’ argument that MySpace acted as a content provider when it “collaborated with the Does and their eventual attackers to create and then flesh out their MySpace profiles,” and when it “allowed the attackers to channel information in profiles, search and browse profiles for particular characteristics and then use the results of those queries to locate, contact, and eventually sexually assault the Julie Does.”
Bigelow contrasted the services of MySpace with those in Fair Housing Coun., San Fernando v. Roommates.com (9th Cir. 2008) 521 F.3d 1157—which held the provider of a website was an information content provider because it created discriminatory questions for users to answer, presented a limited choice of answers and designed its search and email systems to limit listings based on discriminatory factors—emphasizing that MySpace did not require users to answer profile questions as a condition of use or ask profile questions that were discriminatory or otherwise illegal.
The justice reasoned that MySpace was more analogous to the online dating service in Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc. (9th Cir. 2003) 339 F.3d 1119, which provided “neutral tools” with which content could be published but did nothing to encourage the publication of such content and therefore was not an information content provider.
Acting Presiding Justice Laurence D. Rubin and Justice Madeline Flier joined Bigelow in her decision.
Daniel M. O’Leary of the Law Offices of Daniel M. O’Leary, together with Kurt B. Arnold and Jason A. Itkin of Arnold & Itkin and Gregory S. Coleman, Christian J. Ward, Marc S. Tabolsky and Richard B. Farrer of Yetter, Warden & Coleman represented the victims and their families.
Richard L. Stone, David R. Singer and Amy M. Gallegos of Hogan & Hartson represented MySpace.
The case is Doe v. MySpace Incorporated, B205643.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company