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Virtual Tort, Actual Personal Jurisdiction

As a society, we continue to realize the potential for on-line conduct to have real-world ramifications - something the Middlesex Superior Court further illustrated recently in the context of personal jurisdiction - in the first such opportunity for a Massachusetts trial court to do so. In Taylor v. Taylor, MICV2012-01222, 2013 WL 5988569 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2013), a Massachusetts couple ("Plaintiffs"), alleged their daughter-in-law ("Defendant"), who lives in Florida, engaged in a coordinated campaign to defame them and harm their Massachusetts-based real estate business after she lost a series of motions in divorce proceedings against the Plaintiffs' son in Florida. In their Complaint, the Plaintiffs claimed that Defendant, with the help of a private investigator (also a defendant, with his corporation), made a series of identical on-line postings on consumer websites, purportedly written by a disgruntled former employee and warning potential Massachusetts real estate customers to "[a]void [the Plaintiffs' real estate company] at all costs unless you want to fall victim to another couple [J]ewish scammers." According to the Complaint, these postings further claimed that Plaintiffs both take advantage of their employees and "perpetuate the brainwashing of thousands of innocent, hard working people."

Arguing she "had never lived or otherwise previously come to Massachusetts" Defendant moved to dismiss the Complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. Massachusetts law generally allows a court to assert personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state party under circumstances that reasonably indicate an affirmative, purposeful engagement with the Commonwealth, including for causes of action "arising from the person's... causing tortious injury by act or omission in this Commonwealth." G.L. c. 223A, ยง 3(c). Based on the allegations in the Complaint, the court denied Defendant's motion because her alleged defamatory conduct - even if physically performed in Florida - was "purposefully directed to Massachusetts, referenced individuals resident in Massachusetts and their company that is based in Massachusetts" such that the postings "were plainly intended to cause harm in Massachusetts." Taylor, 2013 WL 5988569 at *1. As such, the alleged conduct both met the relevant Massachusetts statutory criteria and satisfied constitutional due process requirements for the assertion of personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant. See Bulldog Investors Gen. P'ship v. Sec'y of Commonwealth, 457 Mass. 210, 217-18 (2010).

By aiming her virtual conduct in Florida at people in Massachusetts, the Defendant - otherwise a stranger to the Commonwealth - exposed herself to the jurisdictional "long arm" of a court roughly 1500 miles away.

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