U.S. Appeals Court: ModelMayhem.com May Be Liable

Rhett Pardon

SAN FRANCISCO — Operators of ModelMayhem.com may be liable after two site users lured a woman to a bogus casting call where they drugged and raped her, according to a ruling today at the 9thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In reviving the case of a model known as a Jane Doe, the court tossed a lower court ruling that previously dismissed the civil action after finding it barred under Section 230(c)1 of the Communications Decency Act. The CDA limits the liability of an online publisher for user-created material.

Doe, who sued ModelMayhem.com for negligent failure to warn, claimed the company knew but failed to warn users that two men, Lavont Flanders and Emerson Callum, would use the  website to lure victims to the Miami area for bogus modeling auditions. The men, she said, then drugged, raped and filmed her.

Earlier this year, the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled to uphold the convictions of Flanders and  Callum, who were given consecutive life sentences in prison for their activities.

The 9th Circuit today found the CDA section inapplicable because Doe does not seek to hold ModelMayhem.com liable as the publisher "of content someone posted on the Model Mayhem website, or for [their] failure to remove content posted on the website."

The suit asked the court to hold parent company Internet Brands liable for failing to warn her about how the men used the website to lure rape victims.

"The duty to warn allegedly imposed by California law would not require Internet Brands to remove any user content or otherwise affect how it publishes such content," the appeals court wrote. "Any obligation to work could have been satisfied without changes to the content posted by the website's users."

The 9th Circuit remanded the case to the lower court consistent with today's opinion.

Internet Brands acquired the site from its original developers, Donald and Taylor Waitts, in 2008. According to the court brief, when the company learned of Flanders and Callum's scheme, it sued the Waitts for not disclosing the activities.

Today's ruling