Police Blotter: Fake gay HotorNot profile draws suit

HotorNot.com profile saying man was gay and used crack led to "constant" ribbing from co-workers--and a suit claiming it led to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: A prank gay profile posted to HotorNot.com allegedly creates "post-traumatic stress disorder" after an offshore crane operator is taunted by his shipmates.

When: U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous in the eastern district of Louisiana rules on July 2.

Outcome: Motion for summary judgment rejected and case proceeds.

What happened, according to court documents:
In November 2004, Norman Trahan worked for a company called Laborde Marine Lifts as an offshore crane operator and deckhand. Laborde's ship was chartered by British Petroleum and sent to a site in the Gulf of Mexico, where it was part of an oil rig decommissioning team that included other companies such as Halliburton.

At some point during the excursion, a fake profile of Trahan with a photograph appeared on the HotorNot.com attractiveness-rating and dating Web site. It was posted by someone using a British Petroleum computer and claimed that Trahan, 29, was gay and used crack.

HotorNot.com appears to be an effective venue for that kind of practical joke. Trahan soon was deluged with hundreds of e-mail messages from intrigued, would-be suitors, much to the amusement of his co-workers who were watching him checking his in-box during a broadcast of Monday Night Football. He says in court documents that "they began laughing" and he experienced "the constant ridicule and insults of many of the team member employees."

Trahan, who believed he knew the prankster, reported the incident to the captain, Gary Eaton, and asked permission to resign and leave the vessel Lab Lift IV. Eaton rejected the request because no other crane operator was available and ordered a drug search of the ship, which turned up nothing. A drug test of Trahan was also negative.

The profile no longer seems to exist on HotorNot, at least under Trahan's name.

Anyway, in December 2005 Trahan sued Louisiana-based Laborde Marine, which in turn sued Major Equipment, which employed the person under suspicion of creating the profile. His complaint says Laborde Marine is "guilty of negligence and failure to provide plaintiff with a safe place to work." It claims the incident led to post-traumatic stress disorder, aggravation of a prior emotional condition, mental pain and suffering, loss of future earnings, discomfort and inconvenience, and so on, totaling more than $1 million in damages.

Other court documents submitted by Trahan say that he suffered a slew of pre-existing conditions that were affected by the HotorNot prank: "Aggravation of bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, migraine headaches, sleep paralysis, humiliation and embarrassment, disgrace, depression, anxiety, paranoia, suicidal ideations, and attempted suicide." Although his bipolar disorder was diagnosed after the HotorNot trauma, it supposedly pre-existed the incident and was "aggravated" by it.

In its own legal filings, Laborde Marine notes that Trahan originally posted a profile in the heterosexual section of HotorNot, which "had nothing whatsoever to do with" his assigned duties on the ship. It also notes that the captain was told by another crew member that Trahan had asked "where a good place to get high on the boat was." For good measure, Laborde Marine also points out that Trahan (who was previously jailed for aggravated burglary) is incarcerated in the Terrebonne Parish prison as of May 2007, though the reason is unclear.

The case was brought under the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which lets ship crew members recover wages and damages if injured by the negligence of a co-worker or employer.

A federal judge rejected Major Equipment's request for summary judgment, meaning the case can now proceed to a trial.

Excerpts from Judge G. Thomas Porteous' opinion:
Major Equipment relies on the affidavits of its two employees, (Brad Sanner) and Aaron Ribardi, who stated that they at no time had access to a computer, did not post the profile on the Web site, and have never visited this Web site.

Trahan, however, stated that he was able to check his e-mail from the vessel, whereupon he learned of the Web site profile in the first place, and from which other workers viewed the profile after he discovered it. Accordingly, there is the possibility that Sanner and Ribardi could have had access to a computer with an Internet connection; the same can be said of all other workers on the vessel. The truthfulness of their statements relating to the posting of the profile is an issue for a trier of fact.

Neither Sanner nor Ribardi mentioned the alleged statement made by Sanner or the subsequent lockdown relating to plaintiff's false imprisonment claim. Trahan and Laborde Marine contend that Captain Eaton was approached by another crewman, Tyler Lege, who relayed a statement allegedly made by Sanner regarding Trahan and illegal drug use on the vessel. This statement to Eaton precipitated the lockdown and drug testing of all onboard and is now the basis for a claim in plaintiff's complaint.

Any facts surrounding this are material to the case. While the statements made to the crewman and repeated to Eaton are hearsay, Sanner has not denied making any of such statements and the crewman may be deposed or called to the witness stand. The issue is whether Sanner made the comments, not whether they were an attempt to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

While Major Equipment argues that the affidavits are sufficient to show a complete absence of a genuine dispute of material facts, pretrial discovery is not complete, and the affidavits of Sanner and Ribardi do not address all of the plaintiff's claims.

Accordingly, it is ordered that the motion for summary judgment by third-party defendant Major Equipment be denied for being premature and inappropriate given the state of pretrial discovery and the genuine issues of material fact in dispute regarding the extent to which employees of Major Equipment were involved in the events in question.