The explosion of internet based social media such as Facebook, My Space, Twitter, and other outlets has created a potential liability risk that few consumers are aware of. These venues provide a place to express one’s views and opinions on every topic imaginable. In many cases, the authors can praise or criticize a person, place or thing in a rant or rave. Social Media sites can also provide a place to vent one’s dislikes or frustrations in the form of emotional rants. Because of the perception of anonymity, too often the rants are laced with profanity and contain many untruths about the target of the rant. The computer terminal provides a false barrier that emboldens many people to type and post words that they would never say in a face-to-face encounter. Once posted on the internet, the rant becomes public.
If the rant crosses the line from casual observation to defamation of character, then the target of the rant may wish to pursue litigation for libel. (Slander of character is spoken. Libel is written and much easier to prove because there is no denying what words were used.) The author of the libelous rant will then contact his or her personal liability insurance carrier for protection. If they only rely on the basic liability found in the standard homeowner policy, they will quickly find out that they are on their own.
Insurance Coverage Gap
The standard homeowner policy provides liability coverage for bodily injury and property damage to others. Because the other party was not physically harmed by the written words, the definition of bodily injury does not apply. The definition of bodily injury does not include slander or libel under the standard insurance policy. Coverage does not need to be denied; coverage simply does not exist for this exposure. The insurance carrier can then remove themselves from the claim. The author of the rant is left to fend for themselves against any lawsuits.
Filling a Gap
The solution is simple. People should not post disparaging comments about others on the internet. However, since avoidance is not an option for many people, an alternative is to transfer the risk to an insurance carrier. Many homeowner carriers offer a personal injury endorsement that can be added to the standard home insurance policy. This endorsement broadens the definition of Bodily Injury to include such items as libel or slander; defamation of character; false arrest, detention or imprisonment; malicious prosecution; wrongful entry or eviction; humiliation; or invasion of privacy. If the ranting author has this protection added to the home insurance policy, then the insurer would respond to claims involving personal libel from posted items on social media outlets. (Note: there are policy exclusions for intentionally causing harm.)
The better option for obtaining personal injury protection is to purchase an umbrella policy that also includes this coverage. The umbrella policy will not only broaden the definition of bodily injury, it will add additional liability limits (usually $1 or $2 million) above what the underlying homeowner policy provides. The umbrella policy will also add additional limits to nearly all other personal liability exposures.
Extends to Family Members
Both of these insurance options will extend to family members in the household. Even though the adults may restrain from defamatory rants, sometimes their children can get caught up in the teasing of peers and classmates (aka: cyber-bullying), The proper policy can help in a lawsuit regardless of the family member’s age.
Need examples? Type this on your search engine: “social media libel cases”
Additional information can be viewed on YouTube with a search of this title, “Social Media Liability Risk.”
Jim Gilstrap, CIC, AU, API, AIS, is a licensed insurance counselor with more than two decades of insurance experience. He has held several position in underwriting and training and most recently served as owner and founder of the Jim Gilstrap Insurance Agency in Watkinsville, GA. Currently retired, he remains active with research and insurance contributions to help others with their insurance careers. In early 2012, he was approved as an insurance continuing education provider.