YouTube wins on personal jurisdiction, venue arguments in Washington state

My partner John Leonard, an avid fan of quirky YouTube videos, couldn’t resist penning a summary of this recent decision involving the website.

In an unremarkable but informative decision from the Federal Court sitting in the Western District of Washington at Tacoma, Judge Franklin Burgess, on April 15 of this year, declined to subject YouTube to the Court’s jurisdiction in that State merely because YouTube appears on the Internet in Washington.

In the case, Victoria S. Bowen vs. YouTube, Inc., the plaintiff, Ms. Bowen, a YouTube registered user, alleged that certain YouTube users posted harassing comments on YouTube directed at her. She also alleged that her “intellectual property rights have been repeatedly violated,” and that YouTube had engaged in negligent affliction of emotional distress upon her. She also, apparently, alleged that YouTube violated her civil rights under Section 1983 of Federal law.

The Court summarily disposed of her emotional distress claim stating that it was barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The Court also dismissed her civil rights claim, saying that it could not proceed because YouTube was not acting under color of State law. As to her intellectual property rights claim, the Court similarly dismissed it because of its “infirmities,” without going into detail.

Most of the opinion, however, was devoted to a discussion of whether, under the facts as alleged in the Complaint, YouTube is subject to jurisdiction in the State of Washington.

The Court noted that in order for Washington State jurisdiction to attach, the defendant must have: (1) committed an act or transaction with the State; (2) the claim must have arisen out defendant’s activities in the State; and (3) the exercise of jurisdiction must be reasonable. Citing several Ninth Circuit cases as precedent, the Court ruled that there was no personal jurisdiction over YouTube in Washington because YouTube’s “presence” in the State was merely passive, and that the plaintiff’s use of YouTube in the State was not enough to render YouTube subject to Washington State jurisdiction.

The Court further found that under YouTube’s “terms of use,” to which plaintiff, by virtue of her being a registered user, had agreed, YouTube “shall be deemed to be a passive website that does not give rise to personal jurisdiction over [it]…in jurisdictions other than California,” and that, “any claim between you [the user] and YouTube that arises in whole or in part from the YouTube website shall be decided exclusively by a court…located in San Mateo County, California.” Therefore, said the Court, Ms. Bowen could not maintain a suit against YouTube in the State of Washington.

Interestingly, after YouTube had filed its motion to dismiss, the plaintiff, probably recognizing that her attempt to keep the case in Washington was doomed, moved to transfer the case to California. The Court, however, ruled that dismissal, not transfer, of the case was the proper way to go. Whether the plaintiff can get another shot at YouTube by re-filing the case in California was not discussed, but the success of any such subsequent case seems unlikely, absent any new facts or legal theories alleged, given the apparent substantive infirmities in plaintiff’s case.

The lesson of this case is clear and simple. If you, as a user, especially a registered user, of a website agree to that site’s posted terms of use, and you later wish to make a claim or file suit against the site, you most likely will be bound by the site’s designated forum where claims may be made and lawsuits can be brought. Furthermore, even in the unlikely event that the site’s terms of use do not designate a state or states where claims and suits must be brought, there is a chance you will be required to make an affirmative showing that the website had more than just a passive presence in the state where you choose to sue.

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