By Kirsten Murphy, Silha Fellow
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in July 2002 that statements made by a Minnesota resident in an Internet chat room were not sufficiently directed toward readers in the state of Alabama to require Minnesota to confer "full faith and credit" on an Alabama district court decision finding that the statements were libelous (see Griffis v. Luban, 2002 Minn. LEXIS 461 (Minn. 2002).
The Minnesota high court's decision that Alabama does not have jurisdiction over Minnesota resident Marianne Luban relied on a narrowed interpretation of the test used in the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Calder v. Jones (465 U.S. 783 (1984)). In that case, a California plaintiff sued the National Enquirer over an allegedly libelous article written about the plaintiff. Although the defendant National Enquirer was based in the state of Florida, the Supreme Court determined that because the magazine had its largest circulation in California, and because the article was "expressly aimed" at California and concerned the California activities of a California resident, the judgment was enforceable in that state.
Katherine Griffis, an Alabama resident, sued Luban in Jefferson County, Ala. in September 1997. Griffis's claim alleged that Luban had defamed her and invaded her privacy when she published statements Luban made on the Internet newsgroup, sci.archaeology.
Luban and Griffis had participated in on-line discussions on the newsgroup site on the subject of ancient Egypt and Egyptology since 1996. In the latter part of 1996, Luban posted a message on the site challenging Griffis's academic credentials, accusing Griffis of obtaining her degree from a "box of Cracker Jacks," and calling Griffis a liar.
Luban did not appear in the Alabama court in December 1997. Griffis obtained a default judgment of $25,000. She filed the judgment in Ramsey County district court in May 1998. The Minnesota district court decided to give full faith and credit to the Alabama ruling and enforce the Alabama court judgment.
Luban appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 2001. The appellate court upheld the district court's decision to enforce the Alabama judgment, concluding that Luban's potentially defamatory statements were being read on the Internet in Alabama and that Luban knew what effect those statements would have in Alabama. (See Griffis v. Luban, 633 N.W.2d 548 (2001)).
The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the lower courts and vacated the judgment, finding that the Alabama court did not have jurisdiction over Luban. In discussing the decision in Calder v. Jones, the court ruled that other courts have read the so-called "effects test" in that case too broadly, effectively allowing any state where an injured plaintiff resides to haul an out-of-state defendant into local court.
Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, writing for the court, adopted the U.S. Court of Appeals (3rd Cir.) test for a narrower application of the "effects test," holding that mere residence in the forum state is not enough to enforce a judgment against an out-of-state defendant. Instead, the court wrote, the activity that caused the injury must be directed towards the forum state.
The pivotal question in the case was whether Luban had "expressly aimed the allegedly tortious conduct at the forum such that the forum was the focal point of the tortious activity," the court said. The case turned upon whether Luban's statements on the Internet were expressly aimed at the state of Alabama or at an Alabama audience other than Griffis herself.
The court concluded that the news group was organized around subjects of archaeology and Egyptology, not Alabama. No evidence was presented that any other person in Alabama ever read the statements, Blatz wrote. Luban's statements were made in a public forum, the Internet, which has no fixed state of publication or readership, and no specific ties to Alabama. "The fact that messages posted to the newsgroup could have been read in Alabama, just as they could have been read anywhere in the world, cannot suffice to establish Alabama as the focal point of the defendant's conduct," Blatz concluded.