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The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that the family of a young woman killed by an obsessed stalker has grounds under state law to sue the Internet data broker he hired to locate his victim. The ruling, in a case with wide implications for the information-selling industry, answered a defense motion for summary judgment filed in U.S. district court and referred from there to the New Hampshire Supreme Court to determine the applicability of state law. With the motion settled, the family of Amy Boyer will return to federal court for a jury trial. It claims that the defendants disregarded the foreseeable harm to Boyer when they repeatedly sold personal information about her to Liam Youens, a 21-year-old who proclaimed on his Web site that he was obsessed with her. He shot and killed Boyer and himself on Oct. 15, 1999, in an ambush outside the dentist’s office where she worked in Nashua, N.H. CUTTING-EDGE LAW “This case, and this ruling, are at the cutting edge of the law in this area,” asserted David Gottesman of Gottesman & Hollis of Nashua, N.H., who represented Boyer’s family. “The law is not particularly clear, and this settles the law in this jurisdiction.” On his Web site, Youens detailed his obsession with Boyer, 20, and his determination to kill her. He said the obsession began in 10th grade. According to the family, neither she nor her family was aware of Youens’ obsession or intentions until the police investigated the killing. According to the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s recitation of facts, on July 29, 1999, Youens contacted Docusearch.com, an Internet-based investigation and information service operated by Daniel Cohn, a private investigator licensed in Florida, and his partner Kenneth Zeiss. In five separate transactions over about six weeks Youens, paying fees ranging from $20 to $109, obtained Boyer’s home address, Social Security number and work address. Docusearch acquired the work address through a subcontractor, Michele Gambino, who “lied about who she was and the purpose of her [telephone] call in order to convince Boyer to reveal her employment information,” according to the decision. Youens revealed on his Web site his reliance on Docusearch.com for locating his victim. “It’s accually obsene what you can find out about a person on the Internet,” he wrote (the misspellings are his). The family sued the company, its two owners and Gambino. The state high court, citing the prevalence of both stalking and identity theft, ruled that Docusearch and Gambino had a duty to Boyer to make certain the personal information about her was sought for a legitimate purpose. “The threats posed by stalking and identity theft lead us to conclude that the risk of criminal misconduct is sufficiently foreseeable so that an investigator has a duty to exercise reasonable care in disclosing a third person’s personal information to a client,” the justices wrote. “This is especially true when, as in this case, the investigator does not know the client or the client’s purpose in seeking the information.” CURBS ON NET DATA? Privacy advocates are hopeful the case will result in consumer-protection curbs on the freewheeling Internet data market. “What the court did is say that identity theft and stalking are definitely foreseeable harms and Docusearch had a duty to Boyer,” said Chris J. Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed an amicus brief for the plaintiffs. “Information brokers, to comply with the reasonable care standard, are going to start being more careful choosing their clients, and this will put the lid on pretext phone calls for profit,” Hoofnagle said. “This ruling already expands the federal protections for privacy.” Andrew R. Schulman of Getman, Stacey, Tamposi, Schulthess & Steere of Bedford, N.H., counsel to Docusearch Inc. and Daniel Cohn, did not return a call asking for comment. Carol L. Hess of the Law Office of Bow, N.H.’s Hess & Fraas, counsel to Kenneth Zeiss, declined to comment. The case is Helen Remsburg, Administratrix of the Estate of Amy Lynn Boyer v. Docusearch Inc., No. 2002-255 (D.N.H.).

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