High court turns away fight over Net jurisdiction

By The Associated Press
04.28.03

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused today to consider an Internet-era case that asked which courts should handle lawsuits against people for information they put on the World Wide Web.

The question keeps coming up as more operators of Internet sites are taken to court for things like defamation or invasion of privacy.

The justices turned away an appeal from Healthgrades.com, which offers ratings of health- care providers on the Internet. A home health-care agency, Northwest Healthcare Alliance, contends it deserved a better grade. The agency sued for defamation in Washington state.

The attorney for Healthgrades.com said that the company, which operates out of Colorado, should not be forced to go to trial in Washington. Kris Kostolansky said that an appeals court ruling allowing the suit "subjects those who communicate opinions over the Internet to the unconstitutional burden of being subject to suit in any forum, until such time as this court corrects the injustice."

The Supreme Court has considered some Internet cases. But so far, justices have not been willing to consider a cyberspace legal boundary issue: Where can lawsuits involving the Web be filed?

Last month, the Court refused to hear a defamation case that involved parties in Minnesota and Alabama. The Minnesota Supreme Court had ruled that a Minnesota woman who wrote a message on the Internet critical of an Alabama scholar could not be sued for libel in the scholar's home state.

The Internet jurisdiction subject also has come up in Australia, where that country's highest court ruled last year that businessman Joseph Gutnick could sue for defamation over an article published in the United States in Barron's and posted on the Internet.

The Virginia-based Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press reported that Barron's writer William Alpert filed a complaint April 15 with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, "alleging that Australia's libel laws violate his right to publish on the Internet."

In the Washington state case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Healthgrades.com had opened itself up for a lawsuit in Washington by grading a Washington state provider and obtaining information for the rating from Washington state records.

Healthgrades.com offers ratings of doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and home health-care agencies.

The case is Healthgrades.com, Inc. v. Northwest Health Care Alliance In., 02-1250.