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Online cult decides federal court case

American adjudicators embrace Wikimadness

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Jimbo Wales and his worldwide online cult are now deciding federal court cases.

Over at the Seventh US Court of Appeals in Chicago, a three-judge panel recently settled a long-standing legal battle by shamelessly citing an entry on Wikipedia. And as you might expect, the entry was edited after the case went to trial.

The case of Rickher v. Home Depot hinged on the meaning of "wear and tear." In suing the American retail giant, John Rickher claimed that the "Damage Waiver" sold alongside Home Depot rental tools was absolutely worthless, arguing that it failed to provide protection above and beyond the company's standard rental agreement. The rental agreement, he pointed out, already covered "wear and tear."

Citing Webster's and Random House - two of the most widely used American dictionaries - Rickher insisted that "wear and tear" is commonly defined as "depreciation, damage, or loss resulting from ordinary use or exposure" or "damage or deterioration resulting from ordinary use." But in the end, the trio of judges ignored those trusted dictionaries in favor of the free encyclopedia anyone can edit without telling the world who they really are.

"Although it is true that dictionary definitions of 'wear and tear' often employ the word 'damage,' that does not mean that damage and 'wear and tear' are synonymous," the ruling (PDF) reads. "Wear and tear is a more specific phrase that connotes the expected, often gradual, depreciation of an item. See Wear and Tear, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wear_and_tear, last visited May 30, 2008."

According to Eugene Volokh, a blog-happy UCLA law professor, using Wikipedia to decide a federal court case is not a good idea. "With a central legal issue, such as the one in this Seventh Circuit case, where there seems to be some contrary evidence, I would be hesitant to trust Wikipedia," he tells the The Reg. "The entry could have been written by almost anybody."

And he doesn't know the half of it.

Volokh also points out that such a decision opens the door to cult-fueled legal tampering. "There's always the risk that the entry could be changed by someone who has an interest in the litigation," he says.

Indeed, the Wikipedia text cited by the court's decision was edited while the Rickher case was still in district court. Judging from a Wikiscanner search, it's unlikely that "wear and tear" entry was rigged. But this is Wikiland. Stranger things have happened. ®

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