In today’s connected society, many relationships and transactions cross state and national boundaries. Thus, the question of whether Florida courts have jurisdiction over an action can frequently be unclear, especially in instances where conduct occurs over the internet. This article examines the extent to which out-of-state torts committed via the internet can confer personal jurisdiction in Florida state courts under the long arm statute.
Florida’s Long Arm Statute
Florida’s long arm statute allows the exercise of personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant if the defendant commits a tortious act within Florida. Fla. Stat. § 48.193(1)(a)(2). A defendant’s physical presence in Florida is not required to commit a tortious act in Florida. Wendt v. Horowitz, 822 So. 2d 1252 (Fla. 2002). Thus, jurisdiction can be conferred by a nonresident defendant’s telephonic, electronic, or written communications into Florida if the cause of action arises from the communications. Id.
Significantly, jurisdiction exists only when a communication is made into Florida. Metnick & Levy, P.A. v. Seuling, 123 So. 3d 639, 645 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013). Mere injury in Florida resulting from a tort committed elsewhere cannot support personal jurisdiction over non-resident defendants. Consul Energy v. Strumor, 920 So. 2d 829, 832 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). Likewise, personal jurisdiction in Florida does not exist based upon the mere fact that an out-of-state defendant interacts with Florida residents. Erie Ins. Exch. v. Larose, 202 So. 3d 148 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016).
Jurisdiction Arising From Online Communications
In Prince v. Kronenberger 24 So. 3d 775 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009), the parties were members of the Korean War Veteran’s Association. The defendant was expelled from the association, and thereafter took to the association’s email distribution list to express his displeasure with his expulsion. The defendant sent an email to the list that was distributed to the group’s members, claiming that the plaintiff (who was responsible for the expulsion) earned his law degree from a “correspondence school” not accredited by the American Bar Association. The distribution list sent emails to association members nationwide, including some members who were Florida residents.
The defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s defamation action for lack of personal jurisdiction, claiming that he did not specifically target Florida residents when sending his email to the distribution list. The appellate court held that personal jurisdiction existed over the case, because the email was actually published in Florida. Jurisdiction was proper despite the defendant not specifically intending to send his email to Florida residents.
Similarly, in Becker v. Hooshmand, 841 So. 2d 561 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003), a Florida doctor accused the moderator of an internet chat room of defamation. The moderator posted numerous defamatory statements about the doctor in the chat room. The evidence showed that the chat room’s participants included Florida residents, as well as individuals likely to seek medical treatment in Florida. Thus, jurisdiction was held to be proper over the moderator because the communications were directed, in part, into Florida.
Jurisdiction Over Web Sites
Although the maintenance of a web site, in a sense, establishes a continuous presence everywhere in the world, personal jurisdiction cannot be based simply on the existence of a website. Caiazzo v. American Royal Arts Corp., 73 So. 3d 245 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011).
The Florida Supreme Court established a test for personal jurisdiction related to web sites in Internet Solutions v. Marshall 39 So. 3d 1201 (Fla. 2010). In that case, an employment recruiting agency accused a “consumer advocacy” website of defamation. The website published a post accusing the agency of selling customer information to spammers and phishers. In assessing personal jurisdiction, the Florida Supreme Court first noted that websites are different from nearly any other form of communication, as they are not directed to reach specific recipients in a specific forum. Rather, a posting on a web site is not sent anywhere in particular, but can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
The Florida Supreme Court held that posting allegedly defamatory material about a Florida resident onto a web site accessible in Florida constitutes an electronic communication into Florida, subjecting the publisher to personal jurisdiction in Florida. The publisher of a defamatory statement on a web site intentionally makes the material instantly available everywhere the web site is accessible. By posting defamatory statements on the web about a Florida resident, the poster has directed the communication about a Florida resident to readers worldwide. The statement is thus published in Florida when it is accessed by a third party in Florida.
There is surprisingly little case law addressing personal jurisdiction for acts committed via the internet. Indeed, no published opinions have yet addressed personal jurisdiction over conduct performed on Facebook or any other social media platform. However, the courts appear to be focused on identifying the specific communication at issue, and determining whether the communication is directed into Florida.
Scott J. Edwards, Esq. is a director of the South Palm Beach County Bar Association Young Lawyers Section. His law firm, Scott J. Edwards, P.A., is located in Boca Raton, and provides clients with assistance in appeals, litigation & trial support, and complex motion practice. He can be reached at EdwardsAppeals.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and 561-609-0760.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-2018 edition of The Advocate, the publication of the South Palm Beach County Bar Association.