A parent's malicious e-crusade against a coach runs afoul of libel law.

Instant communication, the hallmark of the digital age, has made so many aspects of modern life more convenient, but it has complicated the lives of coaches in at least one significant way. A generation ago, a parent with a bone to pick might cool off before managing to complete a letter to the school board. Nowadays, criticism - or worse - occurs in real time, and the Internet allows this sort of communication to go viral with just a few keystrokes.

Mary Anne Bojko grew up in East Hartford, Conn., where both her parents taught in the public schools and her father coached swimming. Her first job out of college was teaching and coaching at East Hartford High School, her alma mater. She worked at East Hartford from 1988 to 1999 (she coached swimming for nine years), moved on to the Windsor school system from 1999 through the 2005-06 school year, and then returned to East Hartford to, once again, teach and coach swimming.

One of the girls on the swim team was Hope Lima, whose mother Laurie was by her own admission very involved in the academic lives of her two daughters. While Lima was generally pleased with Bojko's performance as a coach in 2006, the two had a misunderstanding near the end of the fall 2007 swim season. On Oct. 26, 2007, Lima sent Bojko an e-mail in which she complimented her as a coach and also suggested that she pay for a banquet for the swim team. Bojko rejected the idea, however, because East Hartford had a policy of providing an all-sports dinner at the end of each athletic season. Lima, who was aware of the policy, was angered by Bojko's response and fired off (in addition to hundreds of e-mails to Bojko) an e-mail to the school principal, Matthew Ryan. In the e-mail, Lima accused Bojko of being a pedophile and demanded that Bojko be removed as coach.

Lima admitted later, under oath, that she realized that the allegation was sensitive (and, in fact, admitted she had no basis for her claim). However, when she did not receive a response from Ryan, Lima sent additional e-mails to Bojko's colleagues, students, school administrators, and local and state officials (including the Mayor of East Hartford, the state Attorney General and the Governor of Connecticut). In the e-mails, Lima repeatedly used the term "pedophile," claimed that Bojko had abused her daughter, and demanded that Bojko be fired and that the State Board of Education and the Department of Children and Families investigate her.

Bojko requested that Lima write a retraction, but Lima refused. Instead, she sent more e-mails, including one to the district superintendent, Marion Martinez, in which she again linked Bojko and the term "pedophile." Bojko sued. In Mary Anne Bojko v. Laurie A. Lima [2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1359], she sought money damages, punitive damages and injunctive relief against Lima for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress and tortious interference with a business relationship.

In reviewing the facts, the Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Hartford, found that there was absolutely no evidence that Bojko engaged in any improper conduct, and that Lima's e-mail attacks were intentionally malicious, outrageous and evil. The court noted that Lima's numerous e-mails had a negative impact on Bojko's emotional and physical well-being. As a result of Lima's crusade against her, Bojko began seeing a counselor and required medication for sleep loss, weight loss and anxiety. Bojko was so distraught over Lima's baseless, malicious accusations that she eventually resigned as coach of the swim team and also took a leave of absence from teaching.

Lima's admissions made the court's deliberations on the charges of defamation and libel (written defamation) relatively simple. Bojko was able to demonstrate that: (1) Lima published a defamatory statement; (2) the defamatory statement identified Bojko to a third person; (3) the defamatory statement was published to a third person; and (4) Bojko's reputation suffered injury as a result of the statement. In ruling that Bojko was able to prove her claim for libel, the court ruled that falsely accusing anyone who works with children of being a pedophile is defamatory on its face.

Bojko's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress was also straightforward. Finding Lima's conduct extreme and outrageous, the court noted that Lima clearly engaged in such conduct to inflict emotional distress on Bojko. In fact, Lima admitted she enjoyed the fact that the false allegations caused Bojko distress and that she found it "hysterical" to send the defamatory e-mails to as many people as possible.

In order to recover for tortious interference, the court held that Bojko must prove that: (1) a business relationship existed between her and another party; (2) Lima intentionally interfered with the business relationship while knowing of the relationship; and (3) as a result of the interference, Bojko suffered actual loss. In ruling in favor of Bojko, the court found that she had a business relationship with East Hartford High School, and that Lima knew of this relationship and used tortious means (the defamatory e-mails) to interfere with that relationship. As a result of the interference, Bojko suffered an actual loss when she resigned as coach of the swimming team after the 2007 season.

Having ruled against Lima on every count, the court awarded Bojko $88,374 for her economic damages (her loss of coaching income and her therapist bills), the emotional distress caused by Lima's conduct and punitive damages.

In today's society, many parents feel entitled to voice their displeasure over every coaching decision, especially when it involves their child. Social media networks have compounded the problem by making it easier for parents to challenge and even defame coaches instantly, and to a broad audience.

While, thankfully, most coaches do not have to deal with parents such as Laurie Lima, they should keep in mind the particulars of libel law when dealing with an out-of-control parent. It is essential that the defamatory statement be either spoken (slander) or written (libel) to a third party. Once it is communicated to another person, the first element of any defamation suit has been shown.

As illustrated by this case, to recover damages, a coach's reputation must have suffered an actual injury as a result of the parent's defamatory or libelous statements. Therefore, it is essential that coaches keep track of any financial injury they may suffer because of a parent's conduct. If a coach is fired as a result of a parent's false comments, an injury is clear. But even a coach who takes a paid leave of absence, as Bojko did (twice), can win damages if he or she can prove an injury to his or her reputation.

Bojko's win didn't net her millions and hasn't healed her wounds. (As of this writing, Bojko is teaching seventh grade science at East Hartford but has not returned to coaching.) However, the decision by the Superior Court of Connecticut sends a clear message that parents cannot unjustly try to ruin a coach's career without fear of the law.

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This is a prime example of the fact that grown adults act more like children and behave like school bullies more and more every year. I'm one that can be quick to anger, but I'm also an adult and take personal responsibility for my actions. I would never conduct myself in a manner such as this no matter what the situation or how angry I was. This is also an example of how easy it is to attack someone using the very same standards created by politicians that are used against people everyday. In their haste to "Look tough on crime" that have opened another aspect of Pandora's Box for people to use and abuse; and clearly without them taking personal responsibility they are! I am sincerely happy that they ruled in favor of the coach however I feel as though even with the monetary damages leveled against this post modern soccer mom, the lesson is not learned.
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Sadly, it doesn't take much for people to smear you via the internet. Cyber-terrorist groups like Perverted-Justice run their own sites listing people as "pedophiles" and then list their victims' private info in hopes they will be targeted by members of their communities. Even worse, the police don't wish to get involved and questions of jurisdiction arise. In the world of sex offenders, accusations equal convictions. Learn more: www.oncefallen.com
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They just continue to make it up as they go along, what a shame for our kids.
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Laurie Lima June 4, 2011 at 12:37 pm I am happy to update my children's educational status. Hope will be completing her Undergraduate work in the field of Biology/Science in 2012 from WVWC, she has maintained a 4.0 gpa for 3 years. She regained her seat as a Nationally ranked Swimmer and a Campus Leader. Hope just returned from a research trip in Peru (5/2011) Her plans for the future remain steady, completing her Graduate work in the Medical field as a Doctor although she has not made a specific Career choice at this time. Rachel has been working on her Associates Degree at Manchester Community College and is preparing to leave for Georgia to begin working towards her next degree. She is a Fine Arts Major. Rachel is operating Maids In Waiting on a part time basis supporting herself through College. Being a parent is not a popularity contest although I regret not forcing my children to simply walk away from the issues that arose in their lives 2007 at EHHS. I do not regret fighting for them or protecting them. I just know, at this time, walking away is always the wisest move. The answer to bullying is simple. Walk away.
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I have been fighting negative publicity since 2007. I have been contemplating changing my last name but felt resistant to that idea simply because I did nothing wrong. The Information that is widespread on the the Internet is inaccurate. It is unfortunate that, at times, our Press is irresponsible. I have now decided to update the status of my family members mentioned in the Press through out Connecticut on this blog. It is with hope that other's who experience injustice in their lives and in the Press can learn from us. It is sad the only Press that remains open for review on the Internet is negative. There are many, many articles archived in the Press about me, my daughters lives, swimming statistics and careers. It is a choice the Press makes that they are not shared publicly on the Internet. Through out my 29 year Career as a Local Business Owner and my family's life Press and Media attention were common and positive but unsolicited by us. My daughter's and I were active in our Community within our day to day lives. We were positive role models to others especially women. We remain steadfast in our efforts to return to our status as Private Contributors to our Society. We volunteered regularly in the avenues of our choice. Our choices were and remain private. Many people choose to volunteer and make it a public matter that was never our life choice. The fact that we, as a family, were dragged into a very public situation was unfortunate for all involved. I made every effort to end all communications and actions against us privately and in a reasonable and professional manner. My daughter's and I remain true to our personal belief that we may express to other's how we expect to be treated, the expectation that respect will be forthcoming is reasonable. It is first and foremost our body that we listen to especially in the area of Sports and Athletic Training. My eldest daughter, Hope Lima, is approaching her final year at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She regained her status at a Nationally ranked swimmer in her freshman year there and has maintained a 4.0 gpa through her Undergraduate Studies. Hope has just returned from a research trip in Peru, South America. She is happy, working and planning the next leg of her Academic Career. Hope is continuing her Graduate Studies in the field of Science after her Graduation from WVWC in 2012. I remain focused on my day to day life and pray that all parties involved will someday be responsible and come forward to make amends so they may begin to heal. Hope attended Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy CIBA for High School and Rachel attended a High School Program on the campus of Manchester Community College. We had and have no affiliation to East Hartford High School except our experience with the East Hartford High School's Girl's Swim Team. My daughters are so embarrassed by our "Leaders" On another note: The graphics and margins are being worked on by the blog provider bear with them, everyone has to start somewhere. It's a great blog experience I encourage everyone to try it!
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It's appalling to me the self-aggrandizing in the previous messages from the woman found guilty of, essentially, non-violent assault. Ma'am, you are far from innocent and being a business owner only means you should have a better grasp of proper communication skills and the consequences of speaking untruths. I don't think you truly faced justice and should have spent a week or two in jail for your "hysterical" comments.
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Ms. Lima, The public situation you were "dragged" into was of your own design. You made your bed now lie in it. If anything, your daughters should be embarassed to have such an immature mother who thought nothing about making libelous and untrue statements about a coach because you didn't get your way. Grow up.
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Ms. Lima, you say you did nothing wrong??? Excuse me, but publically blasting a coach by e-mailing everyone up and down the chain and calling her a pedophile to boot just because you didn't get something your way IS WRONG. Calling someone a pedophile with no proof is no different from calling someone a rapist or a thief: all three are slanderous titles that ruin careers. Ms. Lima, you ruined one person's career and caused untold sleepless nights for dozens of people all because you didn't get your little spot in the limelight. Well congratulations Ms. Lima you are in the spotlight now. A little warm under that intense glare isn't it?
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Michael Morris Sunday, 12 June 2011
Ms. Lima, your children's educational status is of absolutely no relevance in this matter. And blaming the press for your apparent immaturity and lack of responsibility is further evidence that that you simply don't seem to get it. Your actions were wrong, and the court found your actions to be wrong. I believe that hiding behind your daughters and blaming others for your woes is pitiful. I think the court should have gone a step further and ordered you to undergo counseling.
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Sorry guys - discussion on this article is closed.