Personal Injury Law Firm Asserts First Amendment Defense in Internet Defamation Suit Filed by Competing PI Firm

Personal Injury Law Firm Asserts First Amendment Defense in Internet Defamation Suit Filed by Competing PI Firm

It’s a twisting, turning dispute that pits competing Dallas-area personal injury law firms against each other. Now, defendants Ben Abbott and his firm have denied all of plaintiff firm Lenahan Law’s allegations about Abbott’s former Internet-marketing worker defaming Lenahan Law in an online review.

A short Google review sparked the litigation. The review read, “Bad experience with this firm. Don’t trust the fake reviews here.” After a long search for the author’s identity, Lenahan Law alleged in December 2013 that Mitchell “Mitch” Meabe of Portland, Ore., wrote the negative review while doing online marketing work for Abbott’s firm. Meabe is Abbott’s nephew.

In two separate answers, Abbott and The Law Office of Ben Abbott deny those allegations and argue, “Plaintiff’s claims are barred because any allegedly defamatory statements were speech that is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

But Robert Tobey, a shareholder at Johnston Tobey in Dallas and co-counsel for Lenahan Law, said, “The First Amendment certainly protects true speech. Our contention in the lawsuit is that the comments … were fabricated and are not true, and that’s why we are suing them for defamation.”

Plaintiff’s co-counsel Coyt Johnston, a shareholder in Johnston Tobey, explained that the review claimed a “bad experience” with Lenahan Law but Meabe had “never been a client or dealt with the firm.” The review went on to “cast doubt” on “other valid reviews” on Google, he added.

Jeffrey E. “Jeff” Farrell, a partner at Martin, Disiere, Jefferson & Wisdom who represents Abbott and his firm, didn’t return a call or email seeking comment.

Meabe hasn’t filed an answer, and he did not return a call or email seeking comment.

Defenses

In addition to denying the allegations, both Abbott and The Law Office of Ben Abbott raised 18 affirmative defenses.

The Law Office of Ben Abbott did so in an April 28 “motion to transfer venue and subject thereto original answer of defendant The Law Office of Ben Abbott,” filed in Travis County’s 98th District Court. In late May, the Travis County court transferred the case to Dallas County.

Abbott then filed an “original answer of defendant, Ben F. Abbott,” in Dallas County’s 298th District Court on June 30.

“Plaintiff’s claims are barred because any allegedly defamatory statements were an expression of opinion rather than an expression of fact,” both defendants argued. “Defendant alleges that any claims against it are barred because they are true.”

Among other things, Abbott and his firm argued that if Lenahan Law did sustain injuries or incur expenses, it was caused by the acts and omissions of “others.” Abbott and his firm aren’t responsible and don’t have “control” over such conduct, they argue.

They also claimed that Lenahan Law is “libel proof” because it “had no reputation to lose.”

But Tobey said that Lenahan Law has “a very good reputation.” He said that, in claiming they’re not responsible, Abbott and his firm are attempting to “distance themselves” from Meabe.

So far, the case has brought some surprises. First, Lenahan Law sued a “Ben Doe” in December 2011. The firm got help from computer forensic experts and amended the suit in September 2012 to name “Ben Miller” as a defendant, but he turned out to be the wrong person.

It took more than two years to learn the alleged review author’s real identity. Finally, Lenahan Law amended the suit again in December 2013, alleging that Meabe wrote the review under the name “Ben Miller” as part of his online-marketing work for his uncle’s firm. [See "Online-Defamation Suit Seeks Firm's Client List," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 13, 2014, page 1.]

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