Jury Awards Victim of Internet Harasser $50,000
This is a case of cyber-harassment gone wild. The case was originally filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County and on July 15, 2011, transferred to the federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois. There were numerous defendants named in the complaint, but the person of significant interest is Robert DiDomenico, a resident of Rome, New York. The other named defendants consisted of law enforcement officers, hospitals, and doctors, all of whom became involved in the lives of Steven and Joseph Rusinowski because of Robert DiDomenico.
Since July 15, 2011, the case had proceeded to summary judgments, some of which were denied, some granted, and some granted in part and denied in part. DiDomenico argued lack of jurisdiction. The court didn’t buy it. DiDomenico also played games about his “handle” The court didn’t buy it.
Beginning in March of this year, motions to continue the date for trial and a truck load of motions in limine were filed. The court denied DiDomenico’s Motion for Summary Judgment and his attorney withdrew. There is no indication on the docket sheet that DiDomenico obtained another attorney. At the time of trial, it appears that only two defendants were left – others settled or were terminated as defendants. Trial started on September 30, 2014. On October 2, 2014, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Rusinowski’s and against DiDomenico, awarding the Rusinowski’s $50,000.
Considering what DiDomenico put Steven through, the amount seems small. However, as is said in many things, it was the principle; justice was served, and the case helps to set precedent. Attorney Todd McMurtry, who practices in Kentucky, took interest in the court’s decision on DiDomenico’s lack of jurisdiction argument, writing,
“The effect of this and similar decisions is potentially profound. Concerted efforts made over the Internet causing activity in a distant jurisdiction could result in an out-of-state defendant defending a case in that jurisdiction.”
Cyber-harassers, be aware.
Federal District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber’s Memorandum Opinion on DiDomenico’s Motion for Summary Judgment gives the background of the case.
“Plaintiff Steven Rusinowski (“Steven”) is (or at least was) an active user of “BattleCam.com,” a website where users broadcast themselves on camera and role-play with other users in aggressive, intimidating, and combative scenarios. On this website, users expect to see pranks, threats and unusual behavior. Steven’s online role-playing overflowed into real life, leading ultimately to this nine-count lawsuit against five defendants.
The principal events took place on and shortly after March 4, 2011, but relevant background goes back somewhat further. Steven is twenty-nine years old, enrolled in classes at Elmhurst College, and lives with his father, Plaintiff Joseph Rusinowski, in Hillside, Illinois. On November 11, 2010, Hillside Police arrived unannounced at the Rusinowski home based on a “concerned citizen” report from a caller who claimed that Steven was suicidal. The Police entered the home and found Steven sleeping in his bedroom with no apparent suicidal thoughts. Joseph Rusinowski later learned from Hillside Police Chief Joseph Lukaszek (“Chief Lukaszek”) that Defendant Robert DiDomenico (“DiDomenico”) was the anonymous caller, though DiDomenico disputes that he placed the call.
A few months later (the exact date is unclear), Elmhurst College security received a call stating that Steven was bringing weapons to and selling drugs on campus. The College’s security employees observed Steven on BattleCam.com and notified Elmhurst Police of their concerns about Steven.
This brings us to March 4, 2011. Starting around midnight, Steven was on BattleCam.com with DiDomenico, a user with whom Steven was acquainted. The two were online for more than eight hours straight. Steven was displaying a handgun, making lewd comments about other users, and drinking beer – all of which seem par for the BattleCam.com course. DiDomenico decided to call the Hillside Police – depending on whom you ask, DiDomenico was playing either a prank on Steven or concerned for Steven’s safety and well-being.
DiDomenico spoke with Chief Lukaszek and told him that Steven could be seen on BattleCam.com drinking, waving loaded weapons, and threatening himself and others. Chief Lukaszek later testified that DiDomenico told him that Steven was suicidal.”
Long story short, the Hillside police ended up taking Steven to jail, and then transported him to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.
Steven sued DiDomenico under a Count for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. To determine whether conduct is extreme and outrageous, the court evaluated the conduct to see if it went beyond all possible bounds of decency. The court noted that on November 11, 2010, DiDomenico called the Hillside Police, and that the police upon visiting Steven’s home, found DiDomenico’s report unsubstantiated. The Judge found that the fact that DiDomenico called Elmhurst College, and what he reported was unfounded, and a false report to the Hillside Police Department, indicated that DiDomenico perpetrated a “campaign of harassment.”
DiDomenico conceded that he thought it was funny to call the police on Steven and have him sent to the hospital, but he disputed that he laughed about the arrest. The Judge denied DiDomenico summary judgment, deciding that a reasonable jury could view these facts and determine that DiDomenico “…intended to inflict severe emotional harm on Steven, or at the very least acted recklessly with regard to whether his actions would inflict severe emotional harm on Steven.
The Judge also addressed causation, and found that no matter what the police did, that a reasonable jury could conclude that DiDomenico was responsible for a pattern of harassment, and that Steven’s emotional distress was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of DiDomenico’s actions.
The court denied DiDomenico summary judgment. His attorney withdrew and there is nothing on the docket indicating that DiDomenico was represented by legal counsel during trial. That can be expected when a litigant loses summary judgment.
The jury was instructed that the plaintiff has the burden of proving that he was injured, and that willful and wanton conduct of the defendant was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Steven proved it and the jury found in Steven’s favor, awarding him $50,000.00.
DiDomenico might or might not have assets to pay the judgment. Often, people without assets who are sued and have a judgment entered against them mistakenly believe that no harm comes to them. Court judgments are provided to credit reporting bureaus. It can have a negative effect on employment, on getting credit, and in some cases, disqualify the individual for housing assistance. Liens can be placed against property. Judgments awarded in federal courts can be renewed every 10 years, and interest accrues.
DiDomenico might have thought that his actions were funny. He thought that he could hide behind a computer and a handle to do his dirty work. He had to pay legal counsel, and if he wanted to appear at trial, bear the costs of coming from New York to Illinois.
DiDomenico apparently thought that causing Steven humiliation was worth risking his future, his credit, and his finances. Cyber-harassers should take this as a lesson.