The stunning jury verdict of almost $14 million reached by Tarrant County jurors in April — the largest Internet defamation amount ever awarded in the United States — was just thrown out by the judge who heard the case. Last week Judge Dana Womack signed an order overturning the verdict. It’s not clear why she did so.
I don’t handle libel cases, as I specialize in motor vehicle collisions, but here’s what happened in this bizarre case.
Shannon Coyel filed criminal charges against her previous employer, Mark Lesher, a prominent 62 year old attorney in Clarksville, his wife, the 49 year old owner of a day spa, and their ranch hand of sexually assaulting her. This was after the attorney attempted to help her with her divorce from her 62 year old husband, Jerry Coyel, who Shannon claimed was a “sexual pervert” when she tried to have her divorce judge removed from her trial for being biased against her. Then the couple reconciled and turned on the Leshers, claiming the attorney had drugged and raped her.
The Leshers denied that the assault had happened and were acquitted of criminal charges in Collin County. But soon after the “attack,” the internet buzzed with over 25,000 anonymous comments accusing the couple of being child molesters, rapists, drug pushers, and more.
The Leshers later filed suit against the Coyels and 178 anonymous posters. later narrowed down to the Coyels and two other people related to them. The trial was moved here due to the excessive pretrial publlicity in the small town where every one lived.
The jury was appalled by the rampant smear campaign and chose to send a message to the defendants (and other internet posters) since it is obvious the verdict was not capable of being paid. Judge Womack is an excellent judge and I respect her decision, although I wish she had stated her reasons for overturning the verdict.
The Leshers plan to appeal. However the appeals courts, especially the Texas Supreme Court, are notoriously reluctant to side with plaintiffs as I have written about previously here.
The Leshers said they have paid civil and criminal trial costs of more than $1 million and they are prosecuting a suit against the district attorney’s office claiming malicious prosecution (good luck with that!). Judge Womack also ordered the Leshers to pay the defendants’ court costs, which will be substantial. So assuming the dismissal is upheld, the plaintiffs will get nothing and will pay a fortune. And their lives have been destroyed. Mark Lesher and his wife moved away from Clarksville, where he had lived for 20 years. It’s a sad story.
But I’m willing to bet the tort reform rabble rousers will keep screaming about the “runaway jury” that rendered this verdict here long after the real facts are forgotten — or ignored.
Oh well, at least we know that our citizens are capable of awarding substantial verdicts, unlike what I am often told by insurance company lawyers and adjusters.