Social media comments spark lawsuit

Morgan County judge, school superintendent plaintiffs in case

A week after the dismissal of a vehicular homicide case against a Morgan County teen, her family has filed suit against many in the community.

“There is a significant consumer protection law for publications called the Communications Decency Act of 1996,” noted the Lowe family attorney Bill Burton, of Marietta. “(But) in one lawsuit there are three counts for defamation, false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the other concerns a bumper sticker for improper appropriation.”

Burton is representing Morgan County Court Judge Michael D. Lowe, his wife and Morgan County Local Schools Superintendent Lori Snyder-Lowe and their daughter Athena Lowe.

The suit is based on comments made via Facebook and Twitter as the McConnelsville and surrounding area responded to the court’s verdict, which cleared Athena of culpability in the deaths of Sarah Lynn Riggs, 18, and Dusty R. Wallace, 19, from a car accident in March 2016.

Lowe was 16 at the time of the accident and the case was heard in a bench trial before visiting judge Robert W. Stewart, of Athens County, in juvenile court in August.

But Lowe was cleared by Stewart because “the state has failed to prove its allegations beyond a reasonable doubt” according to his filed conclusions.

“When asked for their professional opinion, both experts (who testified in early August) concluded that all the evidence supported their findings, which were completely contradictory to each other,” penned Stewart. “As tragic as the event was, and remains, this particular court proceeding requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to assign culpability.”

The state had to prove that Lowe traveled left of center on March 17, 2016, resulting in the head-on collision which killed Wallace and Riggs near milepost eight on Ohio 376 in Morgan Township.

Randall Jedlink, magistrate for Washington County’s Juvenile Court, explained Friday that Lowe cannot be retried because a dismissal in juvenile court is equivalent to being found not guilty as an adult.

“Now jeopardy is attached, so unless (the state) were to come forward with different charges it’s complete,” he continued. “In juvenile court, we use different terms; adjudicated, delinquent or unruly; rather than the term guilty just like we use admit or deny instead of plea.”

But because Lowe’s father sits as a judge in Morgan County, and her mother is the school district superintendent, allegations have abounded for months on social media of injustice.

Some accused Athena of having no remorse, others speculated on the influence of her parents over law enforcement and the courts and some even called for rallies for justice in McConnelsville.

But their comments may not fall under freedom of speech protections, according to Burton.

“Provision 230 (of the CDA) provides complete immunity on the internet for Facebook and Twitter, but not the user,” he explained.

Generally, immunity offered by Provision 230 covers a provider or user of an interactive computer service who must be the publisher or speaker of the harmful information. That information must also be provided by another content provider.

But the lawsuits allege that 38 individuals and the Morgan County Herald and Sinclair Broadcast placed the Lowe family before the public in a false light.

“Statements posted on the aforementioned Facebook pages are highly offensive to a reasonable person,” writes Burton in the first suit. “Defendants had knowledge that their statements were false or acted in reckless disregard to the falsity of their statements and the false light in which they would place (the Lowes).”

This first lawsuit accuses the defendants, some of whom are only identified by Twitter user handle, of adopting, affirming and republishing false, defamatory and inflammatory statements concerning the Lowe family.

It asks for a judgment to be rendered against the defendants for $25,000 for compensatory damage, statutory damage, punitive damage, attorney’s fees, costs of the action and all other court costs.

The second lawsuit is against family of Dusty Wallace, and Circle K Stores.

“During August of 2018, Defendant, Brant Wallace printed or caused to be printed bumper stickers bearing (the Lowes’) name,” penned Burton. “Brant Wallace did not have the authorization of any member of the Lowe family to do so… (and) sold an unknown quantity of these bumper stickers for a commercial purpose.”

The suit accuses Circle K and Brant Wallace of selling bumper stickers bearing the language “#F**KTHELOWES” which also was used across Twitter as a hashtag.

Wallace and Circle K Stores, Inc. face the accusation of using an individual’s persona for commercial purpose without authorization.

The second suit also accuses “a number of defendants whose quantity and identity at this time are unknown” of displaying the bumper stickers on their vehicles.

This second count falls under the heading “misappropriation of name or likeness.”

The second suit also asks for a $25,000 judgment against the defendants.

The Times spoke with one of the 39 individuals being sued, who later asked not to be identified due to fear of reprisal.

The woman said those being sued are scared of the lawsuit, but still called for Athena to take responsibility in Riggs’ and Wallace’s deaths and said a lawyer is being retained to fight the Lowe family’s case.

Timeline of the Lowe trial and current lawsuits:

• March 17, 2016:

• A two-vehicle crash occurs on Ohio 376 near milepost eight in Morgan Township.

• Athena A. Lowe, who at the time was 16 years old, was driving a 2015 Chevrolet Cruze.

• The Cruze collided around 5:20 p.m. with a 2006 Hyundai Tiburon driven by Sara Lynn Riggs, 18, of Crooksville.

• Passengers in the Tiburon were Dusty R. Wallace, 19, of Stockport, and Kody A. McGrath, 19, of Malta.

• The vehicles hit head on and then the Tiburon continued off the road and struck a guardrail.

• Wallace was pronounced dead at the scene.

• March 18, 2016: Riggs died from her injuries.

• Jan. 30, 2018: Special prosecutors were assigned to the case.

• July 30- Aug. 3: Bench trial against Athena Lowe for vehicular homicide was held in Morgan County Juvenile Court on July 30 before Athens County Judge Robert W. Stewart.

• Aug. 13: Stewart dismissed all citations against Lowe, citing reasonable doubt.

• Aug. 15-20: Public outcry on social media accuses the Lowe family of influencing the judgment.

• Aug. 20: The Lowe family files two lawsuits against Facebook and Twitter comments from community members and against family of Wallace.

• Attorney Bill Burton said he plans to amend the lawsuits on behalf of the Lowe family in the beginning of September.

Source: Times research.