What Happens When a Twitter ‘Tweet’ of a Few Words Becomes a Horse Industry Defamation Lawsuit?

By, Julie I. Fershtman Attorney at Law

At Foster Swift, we’ve successfully defended equine-related defamation litigation. Today we’re sharing an interesting case from Massachusetts that arose from a “tweet” of only a few words.

The Case

The plaintiff, Feld, owned a Thoroughbred named “Munition.” She allegedly sold this horse through a Craigslist ad to a dealer who allegedly promised to place “Munition” with a “loving family” that would allow the plaintiff to visit him. Unfortunately, it was strongly suspected that the dealer instead shipped him to an auction where he may thereafter been slaughtered. Some media reports and Internet chatter followed the story of “Munition’s” disappearance.

The defendant, Conway, was a Thoroughbred Bloodstock Agent who became involved in a heated Internet discussion regarding “Munition’s” disappearance; she posted on Twitter: “[Plaintiff] — you are f***ing crazy!” Because of this single “tweet,” the plaintiff sued for defamation, claiming that the “tweet” defamed her reputation and attacked her sanity. In response, the defendant asked the Court to dismiss the case on the basis that the “tweet” was not defamatory but instead was mere opinion and hyperbole. The court agreed.

The Ruling

In its ruling, the Court took note of a few controlling points of law:

First, Massachusetts law provided that a defamation claim required the plaintiff to show (1) that the defendant made a statement concerning the plaintiff to a third party; (2) that the statement could damage the plaintiff’s reputation in the community; (3) that the defendant was at fault in making the statement; and (4) that the statement either caused the plaintiff economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss.

Second, under the First Amendment, opinions are constitutionally protected and cannot form the basis of a defamation claim. Also, “[a]n ‘expression of opinion based on disclosed or assumed nondefamatory facts is not itself sufficient for an action of defamation, no matter how unjustified or unreasonable the opinion may be or how derogatory it is.” The court also noted that “[s]tatements that contain ‘imaginative expression’ or ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ are protected.

The Court then examined the defendant’s “tweet” in its totality and in the context in which it was posted. In doing so, the Court found that the “tweet” was part of a heated Internet debate regarding the plaintiff’s responsibility for the disappearance of “Munition.” Looking at the “tweet” in that context, the Court found, it was not defamatory because it “could not reasonably be understood to state actual facts about the plaintiff’s mental state. It was obviously intended as criticism—that is, as opinion—not as a statement of fact.”

The case was: Feld v. Conway, Case No.: 13-13122-FDS (U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Massachusetts, 4/14/2014).

Defamation cases are serious and can be complicated. Direct your questions to a knowledgeable lawyer.

About the Author

Julie Fershtman is one of the nation’s most experienced Equine Law practitioners. A lawyer for nearly 32 years, she is a Shareholder with Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC.  She has successfully handled equine cases in 18 jurisdictions nationwide and has tried equine cases before juries in 4 states.  She has drafted thousands of equine industry contracts and is listed in The Best Lawyers in America.  Her speaking engagements span 29 states. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net and www.equinelawblog.com