Georgia Court Rules Parents May Be Liable for Child’s Fake Facebook Account

Oct. 21 — A couple may be liable for not requiring their minor son to delete a fake Facebook account once they learned about it, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 10.

The appellate court reversed a trial court's grant of summary judgment to Sandra and Michael Athearn and found them not liable for their son's actions.

Judge John J. Ellington wrote that Dustin Athearn created a Facebook account in May 2011 with classmate Alexandria Boston's name, an altered photo and postings that were “graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive.”

Dustin and a separate classmate, Melissa Snodgrass, invited “many of Alex's classmates, teachers, and extended family members” to friend the fake Facebook account, the court added, and over 70 users were connected to the account shortly after its creation. The court said Dustin and Melissa admitted to their school principal later in May that they had created the account.

The fake Facebook account remained online for 11 months, the court said, and it was deactivated by Facebook Inc. shortly after Alexandria's parents, Amy and Christopher Boston, filed their lawsuit.

The Bostons sued Dustin and his parents for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They said the Athearns breached a duty “to supervise their child's use of a computer and an Internet account.”

Failure to Exercise Due Care?

The court said Georgia doesn't impose tort liability on parents solely because of the parent-child relationship. “Parents may be held directly liable, however, for their own negligence in failing to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct which poses an unreasonable risk of harming others,” the court said.

The Athearns argued they couldn't have anticipated their son would have created the fake Facebook account until they learned about it from the school.

The court said, however, that the Athearns' “argument does not take into account that, as Dustin's parents, they continued to be responsible for supervising Dustin's use of the computer and Internet after learning that he had created the unauthorized Facebook profile.” The Athearns' parental duties didn't end with the first publication of the defamatory material, the court added.

It held a reasonable jury might find the Athearns liable for failure to exercise due care in supervising their son after they learned about the fake Facebook account.

The court, however, rejected the Bostons' claims that the Athearns had a legal duty as landowners to remove the defamatory material. It said there was no evidence that the Athearns “unilaterally had the ability to take down the unauthorized Facebook page by virtue of the fact that it was created on a computer in their home, because it was created using an Internet service they paid for, or otherwise.”

Ragsdale, Beals, Seigler, Patterson & Gray, LLP represented the Bostons. Woodward & Stern represented the Athearns.