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Reversal: Facebook post is defamation, merits damages

October 24, 2017

A southern Indiana woman who lashed out at her late boyfriend’s mother on Facebook must pay the consequences, which the Indiana Court of Appeals said Tuesday include monetary damages.

The court ruled Tuesday in a memorandum decision that Vickie Vest’s Facebook post that accused Zerlie Charles of stealing her truck was defamation per se. The panel reversed a ruling against Charles in the Scott Superior small claims court and remanded for a determination of damages.

“The trial court’s decision was contrary to law, and we must reverse it,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote for the court in Zerlie Charles v. Vickie Vest (mem. dec.), 72A01-1706-SC-1252.

A few days after Charles’ son Robert died in February 2015, Vest, who had lived with him for about three years, reported his pickup truck had been stolen. Police later found it at a church parking lot. Vest then posted on Facebook, in part, “[i]f it was stolen I don’t know but I do know my truck was and yes Zerlie Charles had everything to do with it that’s facts.”

The trial court found Charles had failed to carry her burden that the evidence met the standard for defamation per se and also rejected Vest’s counterclaim.

But Bailey wrote for the COA that Charles had met her burden of showing the existence of a communication with defamatory imputation, such as criminal conduct, under Dugan v. Mittal Steel USA, Inc., 929 N.E.2d 184, 186 (Ind. 2010). The court held that Charles was not required to prove malice and there was no evidence Vest’s statement was true.

“Moreover, Vest admitted it was not legally her truck because she had forged the title to the vehicle over to herself; thus, her statement that ‘her’ truck was stolen was false,” the court held.

“Charles has not only shown prima facie error, but she has also shown that the evidence points unerringly to a conclusion that Vest committed defamation per se against her.”

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