On April 20, a Tarrant County jury returned a $13.7 million plaintiffs’ verdict in an unusual suit filed by an attorney and his wife, finding defendants Jerry Coyel, Shannon Coyel and Charlie Doescher liable for defamation.
The allegations in the plaintiffs’ fifth amended petition in Lesher, et al. v. Doescher, et al ., filed April 5, are as follows: In 2008, Mark Lesher, an attorney who had a practice in Clarksville, and his wife Rhonda, who owned a beauty salon in that town, were wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting Shannon Coyel, the wife of a former client of Mark Lesher’s. [See the petition.]
Months before they were indicted by a Red River County jury for alleged sexual assault, anonymous persons began posting defamatory comments about the Leshers on Topix.com, an online news bulletin board, the plaintiffs alleged. Thousands more comments about the couple were posted after they were indicted.
After a change of venue to Collin County, a jury found the Leshers not guilty on Jan. 16, 2009.
The next month, the Leshers filed a defamation suit in Tarrant County against 178 Jane and John Does, alleging the anonymous posts on Topix.com harmed their reputations in the community as businesspersons; damaged their respective businesses; and caused them psychological, emotional and financial trauma. Topix.com was not a party to the defamation suit.
At the time the Leshers filed the defamation suit, they didn’t know who was posting the comments online, says Meagan Hassan, a partner in the Houston office of Demond & Hassan who represents the Leshers and was their lead counsel at trial. “We had suspicions, but it could have been a number of different people. But we couldn’t reverse engineer anyone,” she says. [See "Attorney, Wife Seek Identities of Anonymous Online Posters," Texas Lawyer , Feb. 23, 2009, page 1.]
The plaintiffs alleged in their fifth amended petition that 599 of the defamatory comments posted about them on Topix.com came from computers in two locations: a house in Clarksville and a Fort Worth salvage yard called Apache Truck and Van Parts. The home, the salvage yard and the computers were owned by Gerald Coyel, aka “Jerry Coyel,” who is married to Shannon Coyel, the plaintiffs alleged. In 2007, Rhonda Lesher testified against both of the Coyels in a child custody case, the Leshers alleged, among other things.
The Leshers subsequently amended their petition in the defamation suit to include Jerry Coyel and Shannon Coyel; Charlie Doescher and Pat Doescher, employees of Jerry Coyel who worked at Apache Truck and Van Parts; and others. (Jurors in Lesher found no liability on Pat Doescher’s part.)
All of the defendants denied the allegations in responses and filed no-evidence summary judgment motions on March 1 alleging the Leshers could not prove their case. The trial judge denied the defendants’ motions.
Most of the anonymous names connected with the 599 comments in evidence were common and not traceable to a named defendant, the plaintiffs alleged. However one name used was unusual: “ilbedipt.” The name was associated with the computer at the salvage yard, the plaintiffs alleged.
“Plaintiffs herein allege that Charlie Doescher and/or Pat Doescher are responsible for at least some (if not all) of the defamatory posts in question, specifically those attached to the username ‘ilbedipt,’ ” the plaintiffs wrote in their fifth amended petition.
None of the defendants testified at trial, Hassan says, and the computer that Charlie Doescher allegedly had used was destroyed prior to trial.
“We read a piece of Charlie Doescher’s deposition into the record [at trial]. During the deposition we asked what had happened to the hard drives. And he claimed when a computer broke they just crushed it,” Hassan says. “Our point to the jury was very few people take the time to crush their computers if they are not trying to hide something.”
William Demond, a partner in Demond & Hassan who also represents the Leshers, says he testified as a fact witness in the case at trial because he gathered many of the documents used in evidence. Evidence presented at trial about the comments connected to “ilbedipt” was important, he says.
“Once you enter that information in evidence, the jury just connected the dots and it gave them the corroboration they needed,” Demond says.
The defense rested in the case without putting on any evidence, Hassan says.
R. Wesley Tidwell, a partner in Paris’ Ellis & Tidwell who represented all of the defendants, declines comment.
The jury certificate indicates the verdict was not unanimous and notes 10 jurors agreed to each answer on the jury form. The jury found that Jerry Coyel, Shannon Coyel, and Charlie Doescher had published defamatory comments about the Leshers, but decided that Pat Doescher did not publish defamatory comments. [See the verdict.]
Of the $13.7 million the jury awarded the plaintiffs in actual damages, $3.6 million was for injury to Mark Lesher’s reputation and $640,000 was for injury to Rhonda Lesher’s reputation. The rest of the $13.7 million was for mental anguish, loss of business and lost earnings, among other things.
Mark Lesher of Lesher & Associates now practices primarily out of his Texarkana and Mount Pleasant offices. He says that since he and his wife filed the defamation suit, he has closed his practice in Clarksville and Rhonda closed her beauty salon there. The couple spent $200,000 in legal fees to pursue the defamation case, he says.
“Bad news travels real quick, no matter what your reputation is,” Mark Lesher says. “But the bottom line is my wife and I feel like we have been finally vindicated by a Tarrant County jury. And frankly we were shocked by the amount. We anticipated a verdict that will give a message. But this gave a tremendous message to anonymous posters.”