Case Law Update: Georgia Court Of Appeals: Potential For Parental Liability With Awareness Of Harm Or Potential Harm From Children’s Unsupervised Online Activity

In a case of first impression, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the potential grounds for parents to be held responsible for the online activities of their children. Boston et al. v. Athearn et al., A14A0971, 2014 WL 5068649 (October 10, 2014) concerns a fake Facebook profile created by two seventh graders, Dustin Athearn and Melissa Snodgrass, ostensibly of classmate Alexandria Boston, which they then used to post a number of false, profane and offensive status updates and comments. After Dustin and Melissa were identified as the authors of the unauthorized Facebook profile, Dustin’s parents grounded him but made no attempt to view the fake Facebook account, delete the account, or otherwise determine whether the false and offensive material could be corrected, removed or retracted. The unauthorized Facebook account was active for approximately a year after Dustin and Melissa’s parents received notice of the issue, during which time the fake persona continued to make and accept friend requests. Alexandria Boston, through her parents sued Dustin and Melissa and their parents, alleging libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After the case was dismissed on summary judgment, the Bostons appealed, claiming remaining issues of material fact regarding the Defendants’ breach of duty to supervise the internet usage of their children.

As a general rule, parents may be held directly liable for negligent failure to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct which poses an unreasonable risk of harming others, where the parent has knowledge of facts from which they should reasonable anticipate that harm will otherwise result. Assurance Co. of America v. Bell, 108 Ga. App. 766, 134 S.E.2d 540 (1963). The level of care that is due depends upon the circumstances of each case. Kitchens v. Harris, 305 Ga. App. 799, 701 S.E.2d 207 (2010). Here, the Court noted that there was no basis for holding Dustin’s parents liable for Dustin’s creation of the fake Facebook account. However, they continued to be responsible for Dustin’s Internet usage after learning of the profile’s existence, and did nothing to compel Dustin to remove or deactivate the unauthorized Facebook profile. Consequently, the Georgia Court of Appeals found a question of fact regarding whether Dustin’s parents failed to exercise due care supervising and controlling their child’s online activity, and reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

Nick A. Hinson