Lawsuits Over Cyberbullying

For generations, bullying has been a problem on the playground and in the classroom. However, with more children having access to electronic devices, a new form of bullying has formed: cyberbullying. This form of bullying can sometimes rise to the level of a criminal offense or a tort in which the parents of a bullied child may be able to recover on a monetary level for the suffering their child has endured.

What It Is

Cyberbullying occurs when children are tormented over the Internet through emails, chat rooms, text messages or websites. This behavior can take several forms, such as posting a person’s private information or likeness online in a manner meant to cause harm to the child, impersonating a child in order to make them appear bad online, sending messages to the victim that threaten, harass or demean the child or breaking into a social media profile or other private account of the victim.

Injuries to Children

Many forms of cyberbullying may not cause physical injury to the child, such as that which would be caused in traditional playground bullying. However, this form of bullying can damage
a child for years to come. Children may suffer depression or humiliation that causes them anxiety. They may become distant from their friends and family. Their performance in school may be adversely affected.

However, other children may indeed suffer physical injury, even if it is self-inflicted. Some children have attempted or committed suicide due to extreme cyberbullying.

Differences with Cyberbullying

One aspect of cyberbullying cases that is different than traditional bullying is that a perpetrator is sometimes able to assume an anonymous identity. He or she uses this anonymity as a shield as he or she torments, harasses or threatens the child. A difficult aspect of these cases is affirmatively proving the identity of the perpetrator.

Legal Grounds for a Lawsuit

Many states have enacted laws criminalizing cyberbullying. Some jurisdictions have also established specific statutes addressing tort claims on the matter. Those states which do not have such specific laws may allow claims of this nature under other forms of personal injury law, such as negligence or intentional infliction of distress claims.

A negligence claim requires showing that the defendant owed a legal duty to the victim and that he or she breached this duty.
Additionally, the victim must be able to demonstrate that he or she suffered injuries as a result of the defendant’s breach. The question of a legal duty in this context is often framed as whether a person has a legal duty to act in a reasonable manner regarding another.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress often rests on whether the defendant’s conduct was so outrageous that he or she should be punished for it. A libel action may arise when the cyberbullying takes the form of lying about the child in order to damage his or her reputation. Other legal causes of action may include defamation and harassment.

Liability of Parents

In many jurisdictions, parents can be held liable for the torts that their children commit. They may be held legally responsible for not properly supervising their children or minimizing the damage that their children caused once they learn of it.

Liability of Schools

Many cyberbullying lawsuits have sought to place blame on school districts for failing to take steps to stop the bullying. This issue is relatively recent and decisions on cases can have an impact on those that come after them.

Establishing a Case

If a child is a victim of cyberbullying, there are several proactive steps that parents can take to protect their children. For example, they can save any communications that the child has received from the bully. They can attempt to stop such conduct on public sites by reporting the bullying to the site manager based on violations of the site’s terms and conditions for use of their sites. If the contact is occurring during school hours or otherwise involves the school, it can be notified as well. Additionally, parents should try to determine the identity of the cyberbully by contacting their Internet Service Provider or the police if the conduct is criminal.

Parents can teach their children not to respond to such egregious conduct and not to retaliate in kind, which may give the defendant a counterclaim against the victim. Parents may be able to block the communications after taking the other steps to successfully identify and document it. Parents can contact a personal injury attorney in their jurisdiction to determine if there are legal grounds for a lawsuit against the bully and his or her parents.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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