COVINGTON, Ky. - Jurors were ordered to try again Friday after telling a judge they couldn't reach a verdict on a defamation lawsuit filed by a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader against a gossip website that featured lewd posts about her.
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman sent the jury home Thursday evening after several hours of deliberations and instructed them to return in the morning. If the jurors ultimately can't agree on the lawsuit filed by former cheerleader and high school teacher Sarah Jones, the case would have to be tried again with a different jury.
The lawsuit against the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based website and its operator, Hooman Karamian, seeks $11 million. The lawsuit cites two 2009 posts on the website that said Jones had sex with every Bengals player and probably had two sexually transmitted diseases.
The posts were unrelated to Jones' subsequent guilty plea to charges that she had sex with an underage former student, though the criminal case was discussed in court this week as attorneys for the website sought to attack her character. Jones says the posts were untrue and caused her severe mental anguish.
Jones' attorney, Eric Deters, said he has a pretty good idea why the jurors can't reach a decision.
"Both parties knew that neither one represented a client that's sympathetic," he said.
In closing arguments Thursday, Deters told jurors that they had the chance to send a message with their verdict.
"You can do something big today," he told them. "You can send a message across America: We're going to stop libel and slander on the Internet."
He added that awarding Jones millions of dollars would effectively shut down thedirty.com.
"Sock it to them," he said, adding that the case is about basic humanity for his "wounded client."
Deters is arguing that the posts defamed Jones and called her reputation into question long before her relationship with the student, and that's why she's entitled to damages.
Karamian, who goes by the name Nik Richie, testified during the three-day trial that Jones is a public figure and that the posts were written by an anonymous user, not him.
In his closing argument, Alex Ward — one of Richie's attorneys — argued that the first post about Jones having sex with all the Bengals players was a clear exaggeration that no reasonable person would believe, and therefore, didn't amount to defamation. He said the second post, which said that Jones' ex-husband cheated on her with 50 women, had gonorrhea and chlamydia, and likely gave it to Jones, was merely an opinion that also did not amount to defamation.
Even if jurors didn't agree with those arguments, Ward told them that they should not find in Jones' favour because she's a convicted felon, an admitted liar and had sex with a student.
He added that the posts were generally true because Jones has shown that she is "sexually immoral."
Jones sat crying during his closing arguments, which included references to lies that Jones admitted to telling to police, her family and her bosses about her relationship with the student. She pleaded guilty in October to having sex with him as part of a plea deal that allowed her to avoid time in jail. The plea deal also forbade Jones from ever being a teacher again.
"This isn't an argument that you should punish her because she lies," Ward told jurors. "It's because you can't believe her."
The closing arguments came after three days of testimony and evidence that included newly released text messages between Jones and the teen that said she first fell in love with him when he walked into her freshman English classroom.
Jones resigned from Dixie Heights High School and from the Bengals cheer squad in late 2011 after four years in both jobs.
The day after she pleaded guilty in the case, Jones and the teen spoke with NBC's Dateline and said they were in love, still in a relationship and didn't care what anyone thought.
David Gingras, another attorney for Richie, said if Jones wins the defamation case, he will appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and argue that his client's website is protected under the Communications Decency Act. The law provides immunity to website publishers from liability for content that comes from third parties.
He said the case is equivalent to someone suing Facebook's chief executive over a comment that someone else posted.
Gingras has won similar lawsuits over the same issue, including a separate one against Richie filed in Missouri in 2011.
In that case, a woman sued Richie over a post on thedirty.com titled "Nasty Church Girl" that said she was ugly and promiscuous. A judge ruled in March that Richie was protected under the Communications Decency Act because the post came from a third party, and the case was dismissed.
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