Courtney Love spent almost six years in litigation, accused of libeling her former attorney in a Twitter post that was visible for less than 10 minutes. She paid a reported $780,000 in settlements as a result of two other defamation suits, both stemming from Twitter missives Love wrote about designer Dawn Simorangkir. “Twitter should ban my mother,” her daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, once said.
Love, an actress, musician and the widow of late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, inherited the band’s publishing rights. She can afford to take on defamation lawsuits. You probably can’t. Given how much of our lives is spent venting on social media, especially in the age of Trump, the more vociferous might want to consider libel insurance.
A longtime necessity for journalists, such policies are now being sold to the average American, bundled with more traditional policies covering homes and cars. For an additional couple of bucks a month, you can buy yourself a little peace of mind, knowing someone else will foot the bill if you’re hit with a defamation lawsuit for what you say online.
“It’s something that, because of where social media has gone, has made this a much different issue than it would’ve been however many years ago,” said Laurie Pellouchoud, vice president of homeowners insurance at Allstate Insurance Co. About 10 percent of the company’s customers have a personal umbrella policy, which has an annual cap of $1 million for personal injury, including libel insurance. The countrywide average cost for this policy is $400 a year, or about $33 a month.
“One of the key benefits of having the umbrella policy is our duty to defend,” Pellouchoud said. “We provide that defense for you to go through the specifics of the case, whether the suit is valid, what the damages might be or might not be.”
“You’re going to see more cases like this going forward. The potential exposure has increased.”
Big insurance companies have offered libel protection for years, but the popularity of social media has lent more gravity to the coverage. In 2011, the Insurance Information Institute published a paper on the industry’s role in social media liability. At the time, a third of businesses said they purchased insurance for cyber risks, which include libel and slander. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners in 2015 added a cybersecurity consumer protection road map to its “Bill of Rights.” This amendment included libel and slander coverage for statements made on social media.
“The fact that there are more of us online, using various kinds of social media, means there is greater risk of somebody being sued,” said Claire Wilkinson, one of the paper’s authors. “You’re going to see more cases like this going forward. The potential exposure has increased.”
As for whether you need libel insurance, experts agree that it depends on your personal risk level—how mouthy and rich you are. More than anything, the insurance provides a sense of security. Allstate sees personal injury claims, which include libel, on fewer than 1 percent of policies annually, compared with fewer than 10 percent for home and automobile claims.
That sliver of libel claims does, however, tend to cost significantly more.
Even in weak cases that get tossed by judges, attorney’s fees can range from $10,000 to $20,000, said Darren Oved, a partner at Oved & Oved LLP and a First Amendment lawyer. A case that does make it to a jury can go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars; so can a settlement, such as those paid by Courtney Love.
Despite the rise of social media and the vitriol it brings, successful libel suits are still fairly rare because the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff. To be victorious, the aggrieved has to prove not only that a statement is false but that it was made with malicious intent. “The courts, in the social media context, give more latitude,” Oved said. “People are conditioned to take some of what’s said on social media with a grain of salt.”
In the case brought by her former attorney, Love won because she wasn’t found to have acted maliciously, although a jury found her tweet to be false. (A publicist for Love didn’t return a request for comment.)
Even when a case is dismissed or defeated, Oved said, it can still have its intended effect. “It still managed to potentially chill your speech. Someone who has gone through that will think twice about posting.”