24 March 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Sued For Genealogy Research – Could It Happen To You?

scales of justice

What if you could be sued for your genealogy research – even if it were true?  This is what happened to one of the authors of Weird Ohio which published a true story about one Ohio family’s history.  And a descendant brought a “false light” lawsuit against the authors.

A Genealogy Ghost Story

Making this long story short: a segment of the book recounted a mass murder by a family member and resulting ghost legends/stories at the location.  The plaintiff in the suit contended that such information caused visitors and “ghost hunters” to trespass on the properly and and bring “unreasonable publicity to one’s private life.”  You can read more about the lawsuit at the Oxford University Press USA website.  The Ohio Court of Appeals site has a recent opinion (opens in PDF) from 23 December 2009.

What isn’t clear even from my reading of the court papers is whether such a murder did in fact take place.  The issue seems to be the resulting “legend” and “stories” about the haunting of the location.

Could I Be Sued For Factually Correct Genealogy Research?

I don’t stay awake at night worrying about this but I guess it could happen if I were to add legends and mythology to a family history which can’t be proven through the Genealogical Proof Standard.  As a professional genealogist, I would want to – as Joe Friday would say – “just state the facts ma’am.”

It is one thing to make a conclusion as to relationships, offspring, etc.  It is another thing to try and validate local legends or family stories.  Care should be taken to document any “family stories” as to their source if they are used to “round out” research.  There are often living descendants who may not agree with the depiction of their ancestors.  Keeping to the facts – proven and properly sourced via citations – can help avoid any misunderstandings as to an interpretation of family history.

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Thanks to Mike Brubaker of History by Brubaker for alerting me and other genealogy bloggers to the recent lawsuit.

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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3 Responses to “Sued For Genealogy Research – Could It Happen To You?”

  1. Michelle 25 March 2010 at 6:55 pm Permalink

    But isn’t the veracity of the legends a moot point? If you say that local legend X says this and this, then the issue is whether or not you have reported the contents of the legend correctly, not if the legend is true or not.

    Having said that, I’m all for re-enforcing the need to back up your family history with evidence. I’ve proven too many family stories wrong with my research to not follow that bit of advice.

  2. Martin 24 March 2010 at 1:08 pm Permalink

    Interesting. Certainly the good news is that the lower court saw this as a frivolous law suit and immediately dismissed half the charges and gave summary judgment to the rest in favor of the defendants. The appellant court, of course, just rules on matter of law, i.e. did the lower court act properly.

    After documenting facts, I have on ocassion included a separate paragraph entitled “oral history” which is exactly that.