In this Monday, July 30, 2012 file photo, Sarah Jones, a former Dixie Heights High School teacher and Cincinnati Ben-Gal cheerleader, arrives at the Kenton County Justice Center, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/The Enquirer, Patrick Reddy, File)
by Lisa Cornwell
Associated Press Writer
COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader won her defamation lawsuit against a gossip website and its operator, with a jury awarding her $338,000 in damages Thursday.
Jurors in federal court in Covington found that posts about Sarah Jones on the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based website thedirty.com in 2009 were substantially false. The jury of eight women and two men also found website operator Nik Richie acted with malice or reckless disregard in posting the submissions he said were anonymous.
One post alleged Jones had sex with every Bengals player, and the other said she probably had two sexually transmitted diseases.
Jones had argued that the posts were false and malicious and caused her severe mental anguish. Richie denied any malice and said that he didn’t write the posts and was not required to fact-check submissions before posting them.
Richie’s attorney, David Gingras, had argued that holding Richie responsible for posts created by a third party would have a negative impact on the First Amendment right to free speech of other people and other websites. He said Jones did not suffer financial loss or medical problems as a result of the posts and suggested the jury award a nominal amount of $1, if they found in her favor.
Jones’ attorney, Eric Deters, said they were not seeking a specific amount in damages. But he told jurors they could help put an end to cyberbullying by awarding damages that would send a message to Richie and websites nationwide that they should be careful about what they post.
Jones cried at times during the trial, testifying that she at one time had thought about committing suicide. She said she hoped the jury would award damages large enough to force the website to shut down and help prevent other people from being hurt by it.
The posts were unrelated to the former high school teacher’s guilty plea last year to charges she had sex with an underage former student. Jones was allowed to avoid jail time with her plea, but was forbidden from teaching again. Jones, 28, still has a relationship with the now 18-year-old former student, and they have said they plan to marry.
Deters stressed that the lawsuit was only seeking damages up to Feb. 1, 2011, and urged jurors not to consider Jones’ actions after that time.
Gingras argued the federal case was about Jones’ character and that her 2012 felony conviction was relevant. He also told jurors lies she acknowledged telling about her relationship with the former student called her credibility into question.
Jurors in the retrial deliberated about 10 ½ hours over two days before reaching the verdict. A January trial in the lawsuit had resulted in a hung jury.