Usenet Kooks, Lawsuits, and You
Perhaps some net.kook has been threatening you with a lawsuit. Fear not, below is a quick guide for handling the wacko:
Note: I'm not a lawyer. Not even close. What follows is based on my own experiences at an ISP, and from being in/around Usenet since 1991. If you really are being sued, or if you have committed a crime, then you need to go find a lawyer. I'm also working under the assumption that you haven't done anything wrong to get sued over. If you have, or even think you might have, then you need to find a qualified attorney. Also, this is page is very U.S.-centric. I know even less about the legal systems of other countries.
Most threats of legal action are just that -- threats. Seems every nutcase who can peck out a Usenet post has adopted the phony lawsuit tactic. Many net.kooks use it as a way of silencing their critics or perceived enemies, or when they are on the losing end of a debate. There needs to be a corollary to Godwin's Law such that a thread is considered ended when one poster brings up suing another.
Everybody hears about the cases where some jury awards the plaintiff a zillion dollars. Nobody ever hears about all the cases that get booted out of court or are never filed to begin with. To the uninformed, a lawsuit threat may seem like a big deal. In reality, for all the threats made, only a very tiny percentage actually turn into suits. Only a small percentage of those ever end up with a significant judgement.
The Money Problem:
People toss around lawsuit threats all them time. Very few of the tossers have ever had the distinct pleasure of paying an attorney a couple of hundred dollars an hour. That's $200-300 per hour of office time. Actual courtroom rate is double or triple that. It's also common to be charged separately for the typist's time, postage, courier costs, filing fees, and other miscellaneous expenses. Defamation or libel suits don't work like accident, product liability, or class action suits where the attorney will work on a contingency. The lawyer is going to want some serious money up front before he/she/it starts work on the case. That is, assuming that there is a case there to begin with. Your kook probably does not have a case, and all but the most unethical of lawyers will tell him that.
If the would-be plaintiff is not laughed out of his attorney's office, then the would-be plaintiff will soon rapidly exit under his own power once the lawyer explains his rates. The up-front expense alone is enough to weed out the bulk of the silly threats. Keep this in mind the next time some net.loon waves the lawsuit stick. Also, keep in mind that many kooks have no financial resources or a even a job.
Calling The Bluff:
One way of dealing with the threat is to ignore it. Many kooks are trolls, and responding to their post just feeds into their bizarre needs. Some just like to "hear" the sound of their own "voice" or to see their every world immortalized. A quick DejaNews search using the kook's name and the keywords "suit, lawsuit, sue" etc. will tell you how often he or she has played this game before. Don't be surprised to find out that there's many instances of the kook threatening to sue, but no cases of the kook really doing it.
Let's just say that you choose to respond to the threat. Perhaps you're in a flamewar, or you want to clear your name, or you just want to poke a stick at 'em and watch 'em squirm. A simple follow-up post telling the kook that you are ready and willing to meet them in court will usually end the thread right there. Even though the kook may ask for it, DO NOT post your address, phone number or other personal information. DO NOT send it via email, either. Chances are, the nutcase won't use it for what he claims, but rather, will find some other way to misuse it or harass you. You are under no obligation to provide your address to anyone but an officer of the court. If there's the minuscule chance that the nutcase really does have an attorney, then his attorney will be doing the legwork of finding your address of record, not the kook.
It's also possible that a persistent kook can find your address from another source, perhaps on the net somewhere. If you receive some "legal" notice from somebody claiming to represent the kook, make sure it's coming from a real attorney. The state bar association should be able to help here. If you hear from somebody who calls themselves an attorney, but in fact they are not, you might want to report that fact to your local bar association. Any idiot with a word processor can created legal-looking documents and claim that he is representing the kook, so don't get upset if you get some dead tree fillets in the mail. Odds are good that it's the kook himself. If this is the case, and you are sure that the kook is not an attorney, then my advice is to not respond to the letter. If you get a letter from the kook that contains physical threats or other harassment, it's time to get the police or postal inspector involved. Of course, if it's something really wacky, but harmless, you might consider scanning the letter and posting it on a web page for all to see. The same applies to telephone calls you might get. More than one unwanted phone call from the kook (or his shills) is harassment and you should report it to your telephone company and to the police. Of course, you also don't want to give out your address that way, either. Legitimate attorneys for the plaintiff do not speak with defendants via the telephone; it's always done via written communication or through the defendant's attorney.
If you find that it's a real attorney sending you things in the mail, then it's time for you to go find yourself an attorney. That's not as bad as it sounds. In many, if not most cases, your attorney will spend a half-hour writing a letter to the kook's attorney. Usually, it will contain something like: "my client will blah..blah..blah, if your client agrees to dah...dah..dah." Decent lawyers will attempt to settle disputes outside of court, wherever possible. In some locations, civil cases are required to go to arbitration prior to going to court. Further, judges frown on attorneys who file nuisance or crank cases.
A very common kook tactic is to report you to your ISP for "abuse", or to threaten the ISP with legal action. In the case of spurious abuse complaints, all you have to do is be sure not to break your ISP's TOS or AUP. You have read your ISP's TOS or AUP, right ? The kook has read your ISP's TOS/AUP and is just waiting to scream bloody murder to your ISP's abuse department the minute you appear to get out of line. There's an easy way around this. Just don't break your ISP's TOS/AUP. That's good advice even if you don't have a nutcase after you.
As part of his campaign against you, the loon may try to play legal games with your ISP. Most larger ISPs are very wise to these tricks. Under no circumstances will they release information about you without a subpoena or court order. Also, most larger ISPs have a legal department that deals with nutcases on a daily basis. They will pretty much tell the kook that he will need to have his attorney contact the ISP's attorney in writing. Of course, the kook's game is likely over at that point because he won't have an attorney.
Kooks messing with smaller ISPs can be more of a problem. Shoestring outfits may not have a legal staff, or may not be able to afford to retain outside counsel to deal with these issues. Your ISP may decide that's it's better to just dump your account than to run the risk of incurring any legal expenses. If this may be the case, feel free to pass this URL along to your ISP. It will also help you to point out the kook's prior threats, and to provide a sample of the kook's loonish posts. You may still end up having to move to a larger, more experienced ISP.
Bits an' Pieces: