Don’t fear ‘cybersmear’; go after employees who libel you online

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in Human Resources

Research scientist Michelangelo Delfino was fired for harassing fellow workers at a medical lab. A co-worker, Mary Day, resigned two months later. Soon after, the pair used the Internet to unleash their fury against the company.

They posted more than 14,000 messages on 100 Internet message boards and their own Web site, all of it directed at the company, its vice president and another manager. The graphic messages accused the company and its execs of discriminating against pregnant women, having sexual affairs, being chronic liars and videotaping employees in office restrooms.

The company sued, and a California superior court jury ruled that the two workers maliciously libeled the company and the two managers. It forced the ex-workers to pay Varian Medical $775,000 in actual and punitive damages. Added bonus: The judge banned them from continuing to post defamatory and harassing statements online. (Varian Medical Systems Inc., et. al. v. Delfino, Calif. Sup. Ct., No. 780187, 2001)

While dozens of companies have gone after rogue employees who trash their companies on the Internet, this is thought to be the first Internet libel case to reach trial, and to produce such hefty damage awards to an employer.

Advice: Although these defendants plan to appeal, the decision strongly supports the position that you don't have to put up with the destructive behavior of disgruntled former workers. Outlook: Count on more judges and juries to make it clear that the Internet isn't a safe haven for defamation and corporate cybersmear.

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