A case is now percolating through the Illinois courts that may have implications on whether perpetrators of online deception can be sued for damages.
The case is Paula Bonhomme v. Janna St. James. Bonhomme lives in Los Angeles. She is a fan of the TV show Deadwood, and back in 2005, joined a chat room about the show. There she met St. James.
St. James eventually introduced Bonhomme, online, to a man by the name of Jesse. Bonhomme and Jesse exchanged emails, phone calls and handwritten notes, and their relationship blossomed into a romance. Jesse introduced Bonhomme to his family and friends via email. Bonhomme sent gifts to Jesse and his family. They planned a future together, and decided that Bonhomme should move from Los Angeles to Jesse’s home in Colorado.
Then suddenly, Jesse died of liver cancer. In Jesse’s memory, Bonhomme went to Colorado to visit some of his favorite places, accompanied by the woman who had introduced her to Jesse—Janna St. James.
But there was a problem: None of it was real.
Janna St. James made up the Jesse character, along with all 20 of his friends and family. She created an entire web of deceit, and snared Paula Bonhomme. She actually used voice-altering technology, so when they spoke on the phone, St. James sounded like a man.
Bonhomme spent money on gifts. She bought Jesse airline tickets and made changes to her home in preparation for his visits, which never materialized. In all, the charade cost Bonhomme about $10,000, including $5,000 for therapy after the emotional devastation of Jesse’s “death.”
Finally, Bonhomme’s friends, worried about the amount of time she was spending online, confronted St. James and exposed the fraud. They captured it on video, which is posted on YouTube.
Read ‘Fake’ online love affair becomes legal battle on ABCNews.go.com.
Watch the YouTube video, St. James exposed.
Taking it to court
Bonhomme filed a complaint against Janna St. James in Illinois court in February 2008. The court dismissed her case. She filed a motion to reconsider in 2009, which was also dismissed. Then her attorneys filed an appeal.
Bonhomme’s complaint stated that St. James St. James committed fraudulent misrepresentation. The elements of this claim are:
- A false statement of material fact
- Knowledge or belief of the falsity by the party making it
- Intention to induce the plaintiff to act
- Action by the plaintiff in justifiable reliance on the truth of the statement
- Damage to the plaintiff resulting from that reliance
The problem with the original case apparently was that a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation was historically recognized only in business or financial transactions. The court had previously declined to consider fraudulent misrepresentation in noncommercial or nonfinancial dealings between parties.
Also, the defendant’s attorneys argued that St. James engaged in fiction, not a misrepresentation of facts, and that “the concepts of falsity and material fact do not apply in the context of fiction, because fiction does not purport to represent reality.”
The original trial court apparently bought that argument, but the appeals court did not. The appeals court ruled that the trial court erred in dismissing the case, and sent it back for further proceedings.
The actual court opinion is interesting and mostly easy to read. Check it out: Appellate Court of Illinois— Paula Bonhomme v. Janna St. James.
Blame the victim
The appellate court decision wasn’t, however, unanimous. One of the justices dissented, writing:
The reality of the Internet age is that an online individual may not always be—and indeed frequently is not—who or what he or she purports to be. The plaintiff’s reliance on the defendant’s alleged misrepresentations, in deciding to spend $10,000 on Christmas gifts for people who allegedly lived in another state and whom she had never met, was not justifiable. The plaintiff also cannot be said to have justifiably relied on the alleged misrepresentations in incurring expenses to move to another state to live with someone she had never met in person and who had cancelled a previous face-to-face meeting after she had purchased nonrefundable airline tickets.
In other words, the dissenting justice blamed the victim for being dumb enough to fall for the scam.
Kirk Sigmon, a blogger for the Cornell Law School, also thought the appellate court decision was a bad idea. He argued that “the world is full of misleading statements and ‘puffery,’” and Bonhomme v. St. James could set a precedent that made Internet users responsible for telling the truth. This, Sigmon seemed to imply, was an imposition.
This holding has the potential to cause serious problems for Internet users. At least according to the Bonhomme court’s logic, many individuals may be liable for expenses incurred as a result of someone’s reliance upon their virtual representations. Mindless banter in chatrooms could now create legal liabilities. If courts apply a similar logic to negligent misrepresentation cases, even careless statements made on websites could give rise to litigation so long as plaintiffs can prove intent and harm. In theory, every user of the Internet is now subjected to an implied duty of truthfulness or due care in the representations they make when interacting with others online.
The blogger argued that allowing a complaint of fraudulent misrepresentation arising from personal dealings, rather than just commercial dealings, “threatens the very freedom that makes the Internet so attractive.”
Read The wild, wild web and alter egos, on CornellFedSoc.org.
Wrong but not illegal
I am troubled by the judge’s dissent, which blames the victim, and the Cornell blogger’s apparent opinion that the freedom of the Internet must include the freedom to lie, no matter how destructive it is to another individual.
The actions of Janna St. James were clearly reprehensible. They were morally wrong. This woman did not engage in “social puffery.” She set out to purposely deceive Paula Bonhomme, apparently just to amuse herself. Unfortunately, she succeeded, and Bonhomme was damaged.
Not only that, but St. James had a history of pulling this scam. Since this case became public, Bonhomme was contacted by at least five other women who were similarly victimized by St. James, in fake letters going back to the 1980s.
So why is it so difficult for Paula Bonhomme to get justice? I think the problem is the very structure of our legal system. Even when an action is clearly wrong, if it doesn’t violate a law, nothing can be done. The law hasn’t kept up with the technology, and the law, like most of society, doesn’t understand the maliciousness of sociopaths.
I hope Bonhomme makes out better in her next court go-round. In any event, I applaud her for even pursuing the case. If we want to make changes, and hold sociopaths accountable, we have to start somewhere.
Story suggested by a Lovefraud reader.