Mark and Rhonda Lesher, a Texas couple, were awarded $13.8 million from the jury after a three-year long defamation lawsuit was finally settled. ¬† ¬†
Mark Lesher was a prominent attorney in a small northeast town in Texas and his wife, Rhonda Lesher, owned a successful salon and day spa.¬† The couples‚Äô life turned upside down when false allegations were made over the internet on a website called Topix.¬† The website was one of the country‚Äôs largest local forums. Users could post anonymously and that is exactly what happened when the Lesher‚Äôs lives were ruined.¬† They were accused of drug abuse, murder, pedophilia, and an array of other crimes that sabotaged their character.¬†¬†They ultimately had to move out of their town, close a successful day spa business, and hope that they could rebuild their lives. ¬†
This all started when the couple and their ranch hand were accused of sexual assault by a woman in their small town in 2008.¬† The forum started flooding with negative comments before the couple and the ranch hand were ever indicted for the charges.¬† All three were found not guilty in 2009. ¬†
The couple decided to file a defamation lawsuit against the users that were making false allegations on the forum Topix in 2009.¬† The judge ordered for Topix to release the identifying information of the anonymous users that made posts about the couple.¬† Topix disclosed the IP addresses of the users which then lead the investigation to the business of a man whose wife was the woman that accused the couple of sexual assault which they were found not guilty on.¬† ¬† ¬†
From the time of the rape allegations started in 2008, over 25,000 comments, on about 70 threads related to the trial, were posted on Topix message boards for anyone with a search engine to see.¬† An amended petition in the District Court of Tarrant County Texas in July 2009 had named six parties including the couple‚Äôs accuser, Shannon Coyel, her husband, Gerald Coyel, and his brother James Coyel. It also included Charlie and Pat Doescher, employees of Mr. Coyel as well as the business Apache Truck & Van Parts in Kennedale, Texas. The Leshers claim the computers tied to the IP addresses were used by the Doeschers. ¬†
The verdict in the defamation lawsuit included judgments against the Coyels and Charlie Doesher. The jury ordered Jerry Coyel to pay Mark Lesher $5.1 million for mental anguish and loss of reputation. Shannon Coyel and Doesher to pay $1.7 million each.¬† Jerry Coyel to pay Rhonda Lesher $3.168 million for mental anguish, loss of reputation and loss of her business.¬† Shannon Coyel and Doesher were ordered to pay Rhonda Lesher $1.056 million each.
Ryan Calo, a professor at Stanford Law School stated, “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.‚Äù
“Our clients, Mark Lesher and Rhonda Lesher, have triumphed over those who maliciously sought to systematically destroy the very essence of their respective freedoms,” read a statement from the Leshers‚Äô attorneys, William Pieratt Demond and Meagan Hassan of Demond & Hassan, PLLC. “For years, the Leshers have known a special form of pain and suffering imposed by a select few that mistakenly believed they were both above the law and anonymous. This victory does more than just help clear the Leshers’ names; it evidences the pricelessness of our reputations, the fundamental importance of free speech, and the relationship of each to the other. For that, we congratulate the Leshers and the juries that have correctly discerned truth from fiction.”