Famed Texas trial lawyer turns sights to Facebook

Chris Rizo Aug. 19, 2009, 6:00am

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Legal Newsline)--The famed trial lawyer W. Mark Lanier of Houston has filed a lawsuit in California on behalf of five Facebook users who allege that the social networking site misappropriated their personal information.

Filed on Monday, Aug. 17, in Orange County Superior Court, the lawsuit alleges that Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook Inc. violated California privacy laws. The defendants include a photographer, two minors, a Los Angeles-based model and actress and a college student.

The photographer and actress claim their copyright-protected photos were uploaded from Facebook without their consent, while the two unnamed minors claim their pages were accessed without their knowledge and the college student claims Facebook altered its terms of service without her consent.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and attorney's fees, said Facebook has misled its users into believing the personal information they might post on the Web site can only be accessed by those authorized by the users.

"Based upon the obligations imposed upon defendants and their experience in the industry, defendants either knew, recklessly disregarded, reasonably should have known or were obligated under the law to understand that their systemic personal and private data collection, harvesting, manipulation, distribution, and commercialization activities violated state consumer protection, privacy, and right of publicity laws," the complaint said.

In the case involving one of the minors, identified as 11-year-old "Xavier O," the complaint said Facebook violated his rights because he disclosed that he had swine flu and the child created the profile without his parents' permission. Facebook requires members to be 13-years-old or older, but there is no tool to confirm ages of those creating profiles on the site.

Facebook's business model "has transformed from that of a social network into that of a data mining company," the complaint said. "Facebook actively seeks to open and/or disseminate private information to third parties for commercial purposes and economic benefit."

In addition, the 41-page complaint alleges that Facebook makes information about its users available to outside entities.

"Facebook has not provided users with adequate information to make a meaningful and informed decision regarding the harvesting and use of their personal data by third-party developers," the complaint said.

The lawsuit by Lanier was filed as Facebook continues to fight a federal privacy lawsuit filed last year over its Beacon advertising program.

In 2005, Lanier won a $253 million jury award against Merck & Co. Inc. for the widow of a man who died after taking the company's drug Vioxx. The verdict was later reversed on appeal.

Lanier also won a verdict of more than $115 million in an asbestos case. He also won a $480 million dollars in a business fraud case.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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