The Georgia Court of Appeals recently looked at this very question in a case that may have a major impact on the law related to social media and its relationship to negligent supervision and defamation. This unfortunate case began when two middle school students decided to create a phony Facebook page in the name of a fellow classmate. The two students used a photo of their unsuspecting peer that had been altered with a “fat face” app and adding postings indicating that the victim was a racist and had a “homosexual orientation.”
The students then sent friend invitations to many of the victim’s peers, teachers, and family members. Eventually, the scheme was uncovered, and the two students admitted to their roles in the plot when questioned by the school principal. Each student was suspended for two days and sent home with a formal disciplinary explanation that was to be given to the parents. However, the phony profile remained online for 11 months, during which time the parents made no attempt to view the page and did nothing to ascertain the content of the page or otherwise remove it.
The victim and her parents sued the two students and their parents, alleging that the Defendants negligently failed to supervise the offenders and were liable for defamation because the acts occurred in their home on a computer and internet account they owned. The trial court looked at whether the computer could be viewed as a “dangerous instrumentality” that would impute negligence to the parents in spite of Georgia’s general rule that parents are usually not liable for the torts of their children simply based on the parent-child relationship. The court found that the computer is not inherently dangerous and granted the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
However, the appellate court disagreed and has cleared the way for a trial on these issues. In its ruling, the Court of Appeals suggests that some circumstances may exist where a computer can be viewed as an instrument of harm that would impute negligence to parents of children involved in cyber-bullying. The exact limits of this potential liability remain unknown, but we will stay tuned for the jury’s decision in this case.