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Parental Liability for Children’s “on-line” conduct

In what appears to be a case of first impression, a Georgia court of appeals has ruled that the parents of a child who created a fake Facebook page, by posing as a fellow classmate, using a computer supplied by his parents for his use and the family internet account could be held liable for the graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive postings. Those postings included content falsely stating that the fellow classmate was on a medication regimen for mental health disorders and that she took illegal drugs. The Facebook account issued invitations to become Facebook “friends” to many of other classmates, teachers, and extended family members. When the parents of the children learned that their children created a false Facebook page, they grounded the child but made no effort to view the unauthorized page, they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information, and they made no effort to cause the Facebook account to be removed or deleted. In fact, the false Facebook account remained accessible for a period of 11 months to Facebook users until Facebook officials deactivated the account when the lawsuit was filed.

The Georgia Court of Appeals held that parents may be held directly liable for their own negligence in failing to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct which poses an unreasonable risk of harming others. The key question is whether the parents had knowledge of facts from which they should have reasonably anticipated that harm to another would result unless they controlled their child’s conduct. In the Georgia case, the Court of Appeals concluded that the parents, although not necessarily liable for the original content or publication, continued to be responsible for supervising their children’s use of the computer and internet after learning that the child had created the unauthorized Facebook profile. The Court of Appeals observed that given the nature of libel, the original defamatory conduct may continue to unfold as the false and injuries communication is published to additional readers or the defamatory content persists in a forum without public correction or retraction.

In short, after the parents learned of the defamatory on-line activity, the parents may have failed to exercise due care in supervising and controlling their child’s on-line activity going forward. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for a jury to ultimately decide the issue of parental negligence.

Should you have any questions concerning this case or any other internet related matter, please contact Scott D. Simpkins at (216) 621-8484.