Venting on social media proved costly for a Minnesota beekeeper, who now must pay $370,000 to a couple who sold him bees that later died.
A Traverse County jury made the award to Nancy and Keith Budke of Wheaton, Minnesota. The Budkes, in the bee business for more than 40 years, sold 75 Texas hives to Nick Olsen of Maple Lake.
When Olsen got the hives home from Texas, he found that the bees had died in transit. Olsen blamed the Budkes, claiming the bees were infected with several diseases. He took to Facebook and vented about the deal, saying the Budkes were “screwing” him, calling them names and warning others not to buy bees from them.
The Budkes sued Olsen for libel, bringing in expert testimony showing that the bees’ health was normal and suggesting that Olsen’s own handling of the bees was the likely cause of their death.
Traverse County District Judge Amy Doll ruled in favor of the Budkes and sent the case to a jury to decide damages. In a verdict issued late last month, the jury awarded the couple $105,000 for business losses caused by the libel, $240,000 for loss of reputation and $25,000 in punitive damages, for a total of $370,000.
It’s the kind of case we can expect to see more of as social media continues to expand, said William McGeveran, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law.
“Social media makes it a lot easier to shoot your mouth off,” he said. “And sometimes people aren’t as careful when they’re posting on Facebook or Twitter as when they’re giving a quote to a newspaper reporter or writing an essay for a magazine.
“But what they say is just as public and the legal risk is just the same.”
Criticism of public figures is protected by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring “actual malice” for a defamation judgment. But regular people don’t fall under that ruling, so posting false or defamatory statements about a neighbor or a local business means it’s a lot easier to land yourself in legal hot water.
And while libeling your neighbor once might have required some extra effort — printing up flyers, say, or renting a billboard — now it’s as easy as grabbing your phone in an angry moment.
“Historically, there were a lot of practical obstacles to defamation,” McGeveran said. “Social media just obliterates those practical obstacles.”
Olsen, who represented himself in the case, said he plans to appeal the verdict.
“All I can say is, I can talk about the case. I can’t talk about anything else but I can tell you that a lot of it was based on lies,” he said.
The Budkes’ lawyer, Ronald Frauenshuh Jr. of Ortonville, said the award “should send a chilling message to people who abuse and bully on Facebook and say things that aren’t true.”
Calling the case “amazing” and “strange,” Frauenshuh said the Budkes tried repeatedly to settle the matter, but Olsen “was just emphatic that he was the victim.” In recent years, Frauenshuh said, he’s seen many things on social media that made him shake his head.
“People post goofy things on Facebook,” he said. “I’d see them and I kept saying to myself, ‘This is open for lawsuits. You cannot say this in public and get away with it.’ ” He said the verdict was a welcome step in helping his clients repair their reputation.
“My goal is to help the Budkes regain some of their business,” he said. “People have to be aware that these kinds of suits exist when you don’t tell the truth on Facebook.”
(Minneapolis Star Tribune staff writer Alex Chhith contributed to this report.)