Jurors in a courtroom in Covington, Ky., couldn’t decide whether two lewd posts about a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader were substantially true or not, leading a federal judge to declare a mistrial Friday in her $11 million defamation lawsuit against a gossip website.
Former cheerleader and high school teacher Sarah Jones, 27, is suing Scottsdale, Ariz.-based thedirty.com and its operator over two anonymously submitted posts that said she had slept with every Bengals player and likely had two sexually transmitted diseases. The posts were unrelated to Jones’ relationship with her former 17-year-old student. Jones pleaded guilty in that case in October in a deal that allowed her to avoid jail time but forbade her from ever teaching again. She and the teen are still dating.
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman declared the mistrial after jurors failed to reach a verdict over two days of deliberations following the three-day trial in northern Kentucky.
A new trial date, which would mean a whole new jury, could be set during a hearing scheduled for March 1.
Jurors were tasked with deciding whether Jones proved the posts about her having sex with all the Bengals players and likely having STDs were substantially false. But the closest they came to answering that question was an 8-2 vote in Jones’ favor; the verdict had to be unanimous.
Jurors did unanimously agree that thedirty.com’s operator, Nik Richie, did not act with malice when he posted the submissions. That means jurors would not have awarded Jones any money had they all been able to agree that the posts were substantially false.
Attorneys for both Jones and Richie said the jury’s indecision taught them how they can strengthen their cases.
Jones’ attorney, Eric Deters, said he feels confident he can get the next jury to find that Richie acted with malice when he refused to take down the posts for 10 months after repeated emails from Jones that they were false and harming her reputation.
“I’m going to win this son of a gun,” Deters said of the next trial.
Alex Ward, one of Richie’s three attorneys, said that “hindsight is 20/20” but that he now knows what points to focus upon more strongly in order to get a win for his client.
During the three-day trial, Deters argued that the posts defamed Jones and called her reputation into question long before her relationship with the student, and that’s why she’s entitled to damages. He also urged jurors to give her a big financial reward to effectively shut down thedirty.com.
Richie testified that Jones is a public figure and that the posts were written by an anonymous user, not him.
Ward argued that the first post about Jones having sex with all the Bengals players was a clear exaggeration that no reasonable person would believe, and therefore, didn’t amount to defamation. He said the second post — which said that Jones’ ex-husband cheated on her with 50 women, had gonorrhea and chlamydia, and likely gave it to Jones — was merely an opinion that also did not amount to defamation.
Ward also told jurors that the posts were generally true because Jones has shown that she is “sexually immoral.”
Evidence at trial included newly released text messages between Jones and the teen that said she first fell in love with him when he walked into her freshman English classroom when he was 14.
Jones resigned from Dixie Heights High School and from the Bengals cheer squad in late 2011 after four years in both jobs.
The day after she pleaded guilty in the case, Jones and the teen spoke with NBC’s Dateline and said they were in love, still in a relationship and didn’t care what anyone thought.
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