Question: My son was the victim of cyberbullying and we have taken steps to get it stopped. We got the school involved, but didn't sue anyone. I know that the posts and pictures the bullies put online will never go away, and that, as an adult, my son will suffer when friends, employers, landlords, and others find them. Can I sue the bullies (or their parents) now for these future consequences?
Answer: Yes, you can.
"Cyberbullying," the term for harassing someone through electronic communication, is a crime in most states. In addition, though, cyberbullying can be a "tort" that gives rise to civil claims. A tort is a civil—as opposed to criminal—wrong that causes injury to another. A tort may injure another's physical person, emotional or psychological state, property, earning capacity, or reputation. For example, cyberbullying could injure a young person emotionally and harm his or her earning capacity (because it might leave a web presence that discourages a prospective employer). The damage to reputation and emotional state is likely to continue well into the future.
The law in most states allows for recovery of damages when someone reveals embarrassing or intimate information about another. A plaintiff like a cyberbullying target, whose private information or image was revealed by another, may sue for psychological or emotional injury. Such injuries can include the feeling of being violated, fear for physical safety, harm to personal relationships, ostracism by friends or family, and the like.
A plaintiff who proves that he has suffered these injuries may be able to recover future damages, too.
SUED FOR POSTING NUDE PHOTOS
After Leona Taylor refused William Francko's marriage proposal, he posted nude photos of her online, along with her contact information. Taylor sued Francko for public disclosure of private facts, defamation of character, and infliction of emotional distress. The court entered judgment against Francko and awarded Taylor $425,000 in damages. (Taylor v. Francko, 2011 WL 2746714.)
Some damages sought in civil lawsuits are intended to compensate the plaintiff for losses he has already suffered, such as psychiatric counseling fees from the time of the incident up to the date of trial or settlement.
But other damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff for losses he will suffer in the future. For example, a victim of cyberbullying may have difficulty finding a job. The parents of a minor who is a cyberbullying victim can seek an award of future wage loss from the bully's (or bullies') parents. And, because the victim may have continuing emotional distress and related medical or counseling expenses, the parents can seek an award of damages to cover these future losses, too.
Damages for harm like emotional distress or psychological injury are harder to quantify in dollar terms than physical injuries (where doctor and rehabilitation fees are readily accountable). For example, how much money is fair for your son considering that he has to live with the photos and other information the bullies posted on the Internet?
Civil actions are complicated. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you understand the legal claims you or your child may have, and the kind of money you might seek and expect. Such a lawyer can more fully explain the law to you and guide you through the process.