Cootie Browns sues over “defamatory” Facebook post alleging COVID-19 exposure

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Facebook post and a local restaurant chain are at the center of a defamation lawsuit filed in Washington County court last month.

The lawsuit centers on a post by a local Facebook group that alleges COVID-19 exposure at one of the two Cootie Browns locations in Johnson City. The post, written by the Tri-Cities Hospitality Assitance Facebook page, urges any patrons of the two Johnson City Cootie Browns restaurants to get tested for COVID-19 due to potential exposure from an infected employee.

The post in question, dated July 13, alleges that a Cootie Browns employee tested positive for COVID-19 and had “direct contact with the public” on July 4.

The post continues to allege that management at the time “have not shut down to properly sanitize after knowing of a (COVID-19) positive (employee) working.”

Cootie Browns, Inc., filed a defamation lawsuit in Washington County Chancery Court last month, asserting in the suit that the claims made on the post and in subsequent comments were false. The suit names Emily Barnes and Abigail Honeycutt, two self-identified administrators of the Facebook page that made the post, as defendants.

According to the lawsuit, Cootie Browns operators have fully complied with all regulations imposed by the Tennessee Department of Health and Washington County Health Department during the COVID-19 pandemic, including vigilant cleaning and sanitation of all restaurant locations.

“We are in constant communication with these authorities to ensure not only compliance, but to assist in the continued operation and success of all local businesses,” Cootie Browns said in a statement sent to News Channel 11.

Read the full lawsuit here:

The Facebook post in question encouraged anyone who had eaten at either of the chain’s two Johnson City establishments to isolate and receive a COVID-19 test since staff is shared between the restaur

“It is the hope that people use deductive reasoning to understand that (Tri-Cities Hospitality) wouldn’t take the time and energy to start a social media firestorm unless we believed it to be a necessary action,” the post reads.

The statement from Cootie Browns said that it will work to preserve its integrity after “recently came under attack based upon false information.”

In the statement, owners of the business say that employees are vigilant in their efforts to deep clean and sanitize the restaurant, doing so “before, during and after each day,” and that the lawsuit exists in an effort to “protect (the) name and integrity” of Cootie Browns.

“We chose to protect and continue to serve our employees, customers, and partners by standing up to the mob,” the statement says. “When everyone with a grievance and a Facebook account has the ability to post anything and everything they want without regard to the truth, the protection afforded by the legal system becomes significant.”

In addition, Cootie Browns owners claim that neither Honeycutt nor Barnes attempted to contact them, alleging in the lawsuit that claims from Barnes that owners “will just hang up on you” are false.

Ricky Curtis, who is representing Cootie Browns, said that nobody contacted his clients in regard to the allegations made in the Facebook post.

“They are as upset about that as anything else,” he said, adding that the owners have operated in the region for more than 20 years and “are very accessible to the public.”

“They (Barnes and Honeycutt) say they’re doing it out of a sense of social responsibility, and with that you have to exercise some personal responsibility to distribute factual information.”

Cootie Browns claims in the lawsuit that the post could cost the business $500,000 per year, and requests $75,000 in compensatory damages from each of the administrators in addition to $300,000 in punitive damages.

Grace Studer, the attorney representing Barnes and Honeycutt, filed a motion on Monday to move the case from Washington County Chancery Court to Circuit Court. Curtis said he filed the lawsuit in Chancery Court since the suit seeks equitable relief, or a nonmonetary judgment.

Studer’s motion to move the matter to circuit court argues that the Chancery Court does not exercise jurisdiction over the matter since the lawsuit also seeks punitive and compensatory damages (monetary damages).

Read the motion here:

Studer said she will also be filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“We believe this lawsuit is an attempt to intimidate our clients from expressing constitutionally protected speech,” she said.

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