A Washington County judge dismissed a Cootie Brown’s Inc. lawsuit against two women who last year accused the restaurant on social media of not adhering to recommended COVID-19 precautions during the pandemic.
Washington County Circuit Court Judge Jean Stanley issued the ruling April 27 with prejudice, which means the issue is dead.
The company sued Abigail Honeycutt and Emily Barnes, administrators of a Facebook page named Tri-Cities Hospitality Assistance, alleging defamation, false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of temporal, economic and property damages.
On that page, Honeycutt, Barnes, and others — some criticizing and others supporting — wrote comments about their concerns regarding Cootie Brown’s employees testing positive for COVID and still working, employees not wearing their masks once Washington County’s mandate was in place, and that there was no “deep cleaning” effort made by either of the restaurant’s locations.
“This is a huge win for my clients because the Tennessee Public Participation Act did its job,” defense attorney Grace Studer said. “It protected my clients from being forced to remove constitutionally protected speech simply because someone with deep pockets had the financial means to force them to endure lengthy and costly litigation.
“It is a message to all that speech on matters of public concern that is published with the proper due diligence is protected and the ‘little man,’ or in this case, ‘little women’ will not be bullied.”
Ricky Curtis, who represented Cootie Brown’s in the case, maintained that the restaurant never violated any COVID restrictions or regulations, but that the company followed those rules completely.
Curtis also said the restaurant “absolutely” did deep cleaning each night.
“They didn’t violate any regulations. The Facebook post (about masks) was made before the mask mandate. Once it was put into place for Washington County, they followed it religiously.”
Curtis said he believes the women, and others involved in the Facebook page, wanted Cootie Brown’s to shut down completely for three weeks like other restaurants in the area did.
“They had the Washington County Health Department come out … they received a glowing report as to what they were doing,” he said.
One of the allegations is that the restaurant did not close to “deep clean” after learning of a positive COVID case of more than one employee, and “has made no response to these assertions, or effort to clean their store, protect their staff, or their customers,” Studer wrote in her motion to dismiss.
She also noted the 30-day time limit has passed for a proper appeal filing from the restaurant.