South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Trial Court Read too Much into Contract
Description

Appeals court held that when a party agreed to remove any libelous material from a website in exchange for an agreement not to sue for libel, the issue is if the site still contained any libelous material, not if it contained any reference to the party claiming to be libeled.

Topic Contracts
Key Words

Intent; Ambiguous Terms; Interpretation

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

Morgan had LASIK eye surgery performed by Dr. Nevyas. As a result, Morgan was left blind. He sued for malpractice and created a website, www.lasiksucks4u.com. He told of his experience and said things critical of Nevyas, including “ruthless, uncaring, and greedy.” The malpractice case was settled in arbitration. Nevyas’s attorney sent Morgan a cease and desist letter, saying that if the website did not remove negative comments about Nevyas, suit would be filed. Morgan replied he would remove any “libelous reference” to Nevyas. Yahoo! shut down the website; Morgan moved it to another server and left in the comments about Nevyas. Nevyas sued for breach of contract for failing to remove the negative comments in exchange for Nevyas not suing Morgan for libel. The trial court held for Nevyas and ordered Morgan not to refer to Nevyas. Morgan appealed.

Decision

Vacated and remanded. Interpreting a contract is a question of law. As such, the appeals court need not defer to the conclusions of the trial court, and is free to draw its own inferences. The goal is to give effect to the intent of the parties as manifested by the language of their agreement. When reviewing agreements that have clear and unambiguous terms, the court need only examine the writing itself to give effect to the parties’ understanding. The court need not modify the plain meaning of the agreement. The trial court read too much into the agreement. Morgan did not waive his First Amendment rights by agreeing never to say anything about Nevyas again. Morgan only promised to remove any libelous material. Hence, the new website, which involved changes from the original, may comply with the agreement. The job of the trial court is to determine if the new website contains any libelous material that would, then, violate the agreement with Nevyas.

Citation

Nevyas v. Morgan, ---A.2d--- (2007 WL 704998, Super. Ct., Pa., 2007)

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