On Aug. 19, an Arizona appellate court ruled that republication of allegedly libelous remarks on the internet restarted the clock on the state’s one year statute of limitations for defamation. Specifically, Phoenix’s Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in the case that the defendants’ rebuttals to a pair of Ripoff Report posts allowed plaintiffs to pursue their defamation claim more than a year after the original content was posted.

The defendants argued the plaintiffs’ December 2009 lawsuit relating to statements originally published on Ripoff Report in November 2008 was barred by the one year statute of limitations.

However, the court found that the subsequent rebuttals, posted in March and June 2009, “added to and altered the substance of the original material,” constituting republication of the defamation.

Illustrating the Single Publication Rule

Most states have enacted the “single publication rule,” where the statute of limitations for defamation begins to run as soon as a defamatory statement is initially published. Thus, hypothetically, if defamatory statements were made in the January 13, 2014 edition of Sports Illustrated, the statute of limitations clock would have begun to run as soon as the magazine hit newsstands.

Continuing the hypothetical, if the subject of the defamation did not become aware of the defamation for one day, one week, one month, or even one year, that is irrelevant. If someone alleges they were defamed in the January 13 issue of Sports Illustrated, in states with a one year statute of limitations for defamation, that person would have until January 13, 2015 to file a lawsuit, regardless of when he or she discovers/discovered the statements.

In last Tuesday’s ruling in Larue v. Brown, the Arizona Court of Appeals held the single publication rule applies to online publications, consistent with many other jurisdictions. On that basis, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that the single publication rule barred the plaintiffs from bringing their claim for defamation based, in part, on remarks made on Ripoff Report more than 12 months earlier.

Larue v. Brown background

On November 20 and November 22, 2008, defendant Sarah Brown published two posts on Ripoff Report accusing her husband (David Brown)’s ex-wife, Mindi Larue, and Larue’s new husband (Jeremy Tucker) of committing criminal acts such as child molestation and torture.

Among the various replies, or rebuttals, posted to both Ripoff Report postings – listed in what is essentially a “comments section” following the original statements – were further posts from Sarah Brown on March 9, 2009 and June 5, 2009 (presumably traced to Sarah Brown via subpoenas).

Plaintiffs Larue and Tucker sued defendants Sarah and David Brown for defamation on December 23, 2009 – clearly beyond one year from the dates of the original posts, but well under 12 months since the rebuttals were posted by Sarah Brown.

The trial court awarded damages to plaintiffs, and defendants argued on appeal that the plaintiffs’ claims should have been barred by the single publication rule and Arizona’s one year statute of limitations.

Appellate court’s decision

The Arizona Court of Appeals recognized the implications of not having a single publication rule and agreed that it would be applied to local defamation cases.  However, the court found the 2009 rebuttal published by Sarah Brown on Ripoff Report constituted “republication.”

Specifically, the court found:

  • “Defendants’ replies referred to and re-alleged the substance of the original articles;
  • Defendants’ later comments also added to and altered the substance of the original material by providing additional information in response to a reader’s questions, and re-urging the truth of the original articles in response to another reader’s criticism;
  • The Defendants’ comments also altered the form of the original articles; [and]
  • The comments were displayed directly beneath the original articles, thereby implying they were supplements to the original articles …”

Based on these factors, the court held the plaintiffs’ defamation claims were permitted and not barred by the fact the lawsuit was filed more than a year after the original Ripoff Report posts. The court viewed each rebuttal as a “republication” of the original material – essentially new, separate versions of the original remarks.

This is significant because internet defamation attacks often go beyond a mere isolated incident, as online attackers often will post a series of defamatory statements — whether all on the same website or on various online forums.

Thus, in courts that follow Arizona’s line of reasoning, the statute of limitations may restart and the period of time in which a defamation claim can be brought may essentially be lengthened by subsequent reputation attacks.