• Click here to read the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling.
* * * * *
LINCOLN — A lawsuit involving a rare signed copy of the novel “Revolutionary Road” has provided a new road map to future Nebraska cases involving the challenging issue of Internet commerce.
Helen Abdouch of Omaha filed an invasion of privacy claim in 2011 against a Massachusetts book dealer for using her name to advertise a stolen copy of the famous title by Richard Yates.
The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled against her Friday.
In what lawyers called a precedent-setting decision, the high court found that Nebraska courts don't have jurisdiction over nonresident Internet vendors who don't actively cultivate business in the state.
“It's kind of a hot-button issue,” said David Yudelson, an Omaha lawyer who represented the book dealer. “Courts are grappling with this all over the country.”
Mary Kay Green, the attorney for Abdouch, agreed that the ruling has ramifications beyond her client's case.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on a privacy Internet case,” Green said. “Until today, the Nebraska Supreme Court never ruled on one.”
The one the court chose involves an unusual set of circumstances going back more than five decades.
Abdouch obtained the copy of the 1961 book when she and the author both worked for then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Yates was a speech writer and Abdouch was an office assistant.
A finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, the novel tells the story of a deeply troubled married couple living what appear to be perfect lives in 1950s suburbia.
The Abdouch copy of the book was stolen from her and, years later, she was notified by a friend who had seen it online. The dealer's website carried a photo of the following inscription: “For Helen Abdouch — with admiration and best wishes. Dick Yates. 8/19/63.” Yates died in 1992.
Book dealer Ken Lopez of Hadley, Mass., said he purchased the volume in 2009 from a seller in Georgia and sold it the same year for an undisclosed price. Abdouch learned of the sale in 2011.
In essence, Lopez had left the inscription information on his site as marketing. He also had added biographical information about Abdouch's prior work with the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy.
Abdouch filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court, alleging that Lopez had violated her “vigilantly protected right of privacy.” District Judge Kimberly Miller Pankonin ruled she did not have jurisdiction over Lopez because he operated his business in another state.
Abdouch contested the ruling with the Nebraska Court of Appeals, but the high court took it over because it was a case of first impression.
The courts in Nebraska and elsewhere have held that extending one state's legal power over a resident in another state must be done judiciously to preserve territorial limitations and the rights of individuals. The Internet's ability to allow business without territorial limitation has made the question of jurisdiction all the more difficult to sort out.
In order to settle the question, the high court had to determine if a nonresident defendant has “contacts” with Nebraska. In the case of the book dealer, the court looked for evidence that Lopez tried to actively build a customer base here.
Green, whose father, James F. Green of Omaha, was close to the Kennedys, argued that the book dealer targeted Abdouch with his advertisement and sought to cultivate business in Nebraska.
But Lopez's attorney said his client never visited the state to sell books, he didn't advertise in Nebraska publications and he didn't send a mailing list to more than two Nebraskans who had bought books from him through the website.
Out of nearly $4 million in sales from 2009 to 2011, only $615 was from Nebraska customers.
Otherwise, the high court ruled, Lopez's contacts with Nebraska were “nonexistent.” There was no evidence, the court said, that Lopez intended to invade Abdouch's privacy.
Green, who said she will explore the possibility of refiling the lawsuit in Massachusetts, strongly objected to that part of the ruling.
“They leave an impossible standard,” she said, “because there is no way, unless you use a mind reader or psychic, to know what his intent was.”
Yudelson, however, said the court got it right.
“We think it's quite a significant opinion, especially for businesses on the Internet,” he said.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, firstname.lastname@example.org