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The scandal surrounding Manti Te’o and his relationship with the fictitious Lennay Kekua has brought the topic of Internet hoaxes back into the limelight. Beyond presenting an intriguing “whodunit,” the Te’o scandal also raises a number of difficult legal questions. If Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is responsible, as many have alleged thus far, will he be liable for any civil action? Will he be guilty of any crime? Despite the feeling of outrage that poured out of both the professional sports and journalism communities once the truth about Lennay Kekua became known, the answer is not clear at all.
Daliah Saper first tackled these legal issues head on from 2008 to 2012 in Bonhomme v. St. James. In that case, defendant Janna St. James deceived plaintiff Paula Bonhomme into conducting an online relationship with her over the course of a year and a half through the creation of a male alter ego, Jesse James.
The hoax was extensive. St. James utilized voice modulators and social media to create a cast of characters who fleshed out her fictional life. These characters inhabited Jesse’s world and corroborated stories that he told Bonhomme, strengthening her belief in his existence. Through these efforts, St. James extracted numerous gifts from her victim, worth thousands of dollars, before she ended the hoax by killing Jesse off–an event which sent Bonhomme into deep depression and medical illness.
Despite this outrageous behavior, St. James escaped legal liability for her actions. At the trial and appellate levels, St. James succeeded in dismissing Bonhomme’s complaint and, due to procedural issues, the Illinois Supreme Court was only able to hear Saper Law’s appeal on a single issue from the case–fraudulent misrepresentation. Unfortunately, the Court declined to extend the tort, typically seen in business-related disputes, to the personal level.
Daliah will be tackling these legal issues again tonight on the ABC news show 20/20 at 10:00 PM EST (9:00 PM CST). She’ll explain the ins and outs of the legal issues involved in the Te’o hoax and provide perspective on the often-damaging relationships in which people find themselves online.
Illinois Supreme Court Arguments in Bonhomme v. St. James
Saper Law Attorneys Argue Before the Illinois Supreme Court
Paula Bonhomme v. St. James Case Continues to Grab Headlines
Saper Law Wins Appellate Court Argument in an Unusual Case Involving Internet Fraud and Misrepresentation