Court Says ‘Model Mayhem’ Site Can Be Sued For Not Warning Models About Pair Of Rapists

Can a networking site for aspiring models be held accountable if it fails to warn users when it is aware that sexual predators have been using the site to target, drug, and rape women? A federal appeals court says that the law doesn’t necessarily protect the site’s owners from liability.

In 2011, a Jane Doe plaintiff sued Internet Brands, parent company of popular networking site Model Mayhem, alleging that the site’s operators had violated California state law by failing to notify Model Mayhem users of the very real risk that they could be targeted by sex offenders.

Not just theoretical rapists either; a pair of real-life sex offenders that the plaintiff claims Internet Brands had known about for years before they — under the pretense of being a “talent scout” — lured her to Florida, where she was allegedly drugged and raped in Feb. 2011.

According to the lawsuit, the pair had been at this scheme for around five years, using Model Mayhem as a hunting ground for victims; not only sexually violating the women they plied with date-rape drugs, but then allegedly distributing video of the acts.

To make her case that Internet Brands — which purchased Model Mayhem in 2008 — was aware of this predatory pair, the plaintiff points to a 2010 lawsuit filed by Internet Brands against the original owners for allegedly failing to disclose the potential for civil suits arising from the activities of these particular rapists.

Internet Brands has been seeking to have the Jane Doe lawsuit dismissed, claiming such a complaint is barred by the Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, which limits a website’s liability for content published by a third party.

In its ruling [PDF] the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals notes that there are examples of websites successfully using the CDA as a protection from liability. For example, sites have been shielded from defamatory content posted by third parties.

However, the appeals panel says that the plaintiff’s contention here is inherently different than the sort of claim that the CDA was intended to protect against.

“She does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable as a ‘publisher or speaker’ of content someone posted on the Model Mayhem website, or for Internet Brands’ failure to remove content posted on the website,” explains the court. “Jane Doe herself posted her profile, but she does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable for its content. Nor does she allege that [the rapists] posted anything to the website.”

Likewise, she’s not alleging that Internet Brands learned of the rapists’ activities by monitoring the postings on the site, or that she was harmed because Internet Brands failed to remove any profiles.

“Instead, Jane Doe attempts to hold Internet Brands liable for failing to warn her about information it obtained from an outside source about how third parties targeted and lured victims through Model Mayhem,” explains the court. “The duty to warn allegedly imposed by California law would not require Internet Brands to remove any user content or otherwise affect how it publishes or monitors such content.”

The court contends that Internet Brands could warned Model Mayhem users about the known predators through postings on the site or via email.

“Posting or emailing such a warning could be deemed an act of publishing information, but section 230(c)(1) bars only liability that treats a website as a publisher or speaker of content provided by somebody else,” reads the ruling. “A post or email warning that Internet Brands generated would involve only content that Internet Brands itself produced.”

The court provides no opinion on whether or not Internet Brands is indeed liable for the alleged failure to warn. This ruling only determines that the lawsuit against the company can move forward.

[via Ars Technica]

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