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Unusual Premises Liability Case to Change Definitions of “Premises”?

Most premises liability cases have to do with a specific location or premises. These cases are an issue when someone slips or becomes injured on another person’s property. A new case may take the definition of premises liability into cyberspace, however. A round of lawsuits filed in late January 2007 against social networking MySpace allege that the site failed to protect minors. Four families are suing the company, alleging their daughters were sexually assaulted after meeting men they had first encountered through MySpace. Attorneys representing the families claim that MySpace did not add security measures to the site, making minors vulnerable.

The website, owned by parent company News Corp., did eventually add some security features after widespread criticism that the site was doing nothing to protect minors. These security measures came too late, claim the victims’ families. In fact, the latest security features for MySpace – including a software program called Zephyr – were only released the same week the lawsuits were filed.

Experts in technology law have pointed out that message boards and social networking sites are not in fact required by law to have security features and in fact there are no laws governing the ways that these sites should operate. User agreements do ban specific illegal activities from sites, but each site is allowed to decide for itself how specific illegal activities will be stopped.

Another issue, claim technology experts, is how a large site such as MySpace can monitor and halt potentially illegal activity. Websites can use age verification and access controls, but these can always be circumvented by users. As many legal professionals have pointed out, web sites are not required by law to moderate their web sites, and doing so poses serious logistic challenges, especially on websites with heavy traffic.

Another challenge in the lawsuits will have to do with a lack of precedence. There simply have not been many previous cases like the one against MySpace, and that could make the families’ battle more difficult. In addition, a 2001 Florida’s Supreme Court ruling could be an issue. The 2001 ruling found that in line with the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996, AOL was not liable for not policing chat rooms.

What is interesting about the MySpace case is that it is expected that the plaintiffs will opt for a “premises liability” argument. Although a web site is not usually considered a location or premises as such, creating this sort of argument allows the plaintiffs to argue that MySpace did not take adequate care to prevent foreseeable illegal acts.

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