Articles Posted in Fault

Since the Supreme Court decided the seminal Curtis Publishing case back in 1967, public figures have played an important role in U.S. defamation jurisprudence. That case held that it should be more difficult for public figures to sue for libel and slander than ordinary private citizens, because if public figures have voluntarily thrust themselves “into the vortex” of a public debate, they should assume that they may become the subject of public discussion and should be willing to accept the risk that on occasion, less-careful fact-checkers may say certain things about them that aren’t true. Therefore, although private citizens will only need to demonstrate negligence to recover damages caused by defamation, public figures need to prove the defendant either knew he or she was spreading false information, or acted with reckless disregard for whether the information was true or false. This heightened level of wrongful intent is known as malice.

Some erroneously equate public figures with celebrities. In reality, the level of fame a plaintiff needs to achieve before being categorized as a “public figure” by a Virginia court is much lower than that of household-name celebrities. Moreover, courts recognize “limited purpose” public figures and subject them to the same obstacles regular all-purpose public figures face when the alleged defamation is based on the subject matter of their public participation and involvement.

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When local politicians sue media defendants over false and defamatory stories related to their official conduct, they need to show that the article in question was published with actual malice. That means that it’s not enough to show negligent reporting or that some of the facts in the article are untrue; a successful public official bringing a defamation claim against a newspaper must show that the paper either knew the facts were wrong or that they were most likely wrong, and proceeded to publish them anyway.

In Hanover County, Virginia, Supervisor Sean M. Davis is taking a crack at the publisher of Style Weekly and its reporter, Peter Galuszka, over an article written last December that questioned whether Mr. Davis was exerting improper influence on a local high school’s curriculum. After noting that several books and movies had been banned from Hanover High School, the article described “some students, former teachers and parents” as saying that Supervisor Davis had “personally intervened to have teachers suspended or face other disciplinary actions if they present ideas or images that Davis considers too liberal.” In truth, claims his lawsuit, Davis “had absolutely nothing to do with the suspension or firing of any teacher or the banning of any book.” His challenge is going to be in proving that the reporter republished the accusations against him with knowledge that they were untrue, or at least with a high degree of awareness that the accusations were probably untrue.

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In Virginia, when a defamation action is brought by a private individual (as opposed to a public figure), the plaintiff will usually only need to establish negligence to meet the “intent” element required to prevail in such actions. Public figures, on the other hand, need to prove the defendant acted with New York Times malice. A little-known exception to the rule for private individuals, however, is that if the statement at issue does not make “substantial danger to reputation” apparent to the reasonable publisher, then even private plaintiffs would need to prove malice to recover for defamation. As explained by the Virginia Supreme Court in Gazette, Inc. v. Harris, 229 Va. 1, 22-23 (1985), a threshold question of law for the trial judge is to determine “whether a reasonable and prudent editor should have anticipated that the words used contained an imputation necessarily harmful to reputation.”

Do not confuse “substantial danger to reputation” with defamatory meaning. Regardless of the state of mind of the defendant, a statement won’t be actionable if it doesn’t carry the requisite defamatory sting. Every defamatory statement must contain the sort of false characterizations that would tend to harm one’s reputation. What plaintiffs need to prove in every defamation action is not just that a statement has the potential to cause substantial danger to reputation but that it actually is the sort of statement that would tend to harm reputation. What we’re talking about now–the “Gazette test”–deals with the foreseeability and obviousness of the harmful nature of the statement. In other words, while a successful plaintiff will always need to demonstrate defamatory meaning, if that defamatory meaning would not be readily apparent to a reasonable person in the position of the defendant at the time the statement was made, the plaintiff will need to prove malice, even if he or she is a private individual.

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In every defamation case, it’s necessary to determine whether the plaintiff should be treated as a public figure, a public official, or a regular Average Joe. This is because “public” plaintiffs face a much higher burden of proof than “private” plaintiffs. A private plaintiff normally only needs to prove that a defamatory statement was made with negligence in regard to whether the statement was true or false, whereas a public plaintiff generally needs to show that the defendant acted with malice, which is much more difficult to prove than negligence. There are many justifications for the discrepancy, but the most frequently cited are that (a) public plaintiffs voluntarily assumed the spotlight, and they should know that having people talk loosely about them comes with the territory, and (b) by virtue of their notoriety, public plaintiffs have more opportunities to rebut defamatory statements. Courts sometimes use the terms “public figure” and “public official” interchangeably, but they are conceptually different, and different considerations determine whether a plaintiff should be treated as one or the other.

The main distinguishing feature is that public officials are not necessarily attention-seeking, and as a result, they are not always treated as “public” plaintiffs who would need to show malice in order to prevail in a defamation action.
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Suppose you’ve spoken your mind about someone you don’t like and have been accused of defamation. Should you apologize? If you intentionally defamed the character of another person out of ill will or spite, you’re probably not going to want to apologize. But if you’ve either had a change of heart or a sudden realization that you’re about to get sued, there are some good reasons to say you’re sorry.

For one thing, apologizing–if done right–can mitigate the plaintiff’s damages. Plaintiffs who sue for libel or slander in Virginia aren’t just limited to recovery of out-of-pocket pecuniary losses; they can also recover damages for pure emotional distress. Even without proof of actual reputational harm, Virginia courts have allowed plaintiffs to recover compensation for mental anguish, embarrassment, and humiliation. In essence, the worse the plaintiff feels, the higher the potential for a large damages award. In the business world, studies of disgruntled customers have shown that they are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that performs poorly but then apologizes than one that offers payment in lieu of an apology. It stands to reason, then, that a plaintiff’s emotional distress will likely be diminished if you make a sincere, timely apology, and publish that apology to the same group to whom you made the defamatory remarks.
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Where an otherwise defamatory statement is subject to a qualified privilege, a plaintiff can overcome that privilege by showing that the defendant acted with actual malice. However, “actual malice” in the context of a defamation action–also known as “New York Times malice,” is a different concept than the common-law malice ordinarily required to support an award of punitive damages. A speaker acts with actual malice when he knows that his statement is false or acts with reckless disregard as to its truth. Mere dislike of the plaintiff is not sufficient to indicate a speaker acted with actual malice.

The distinction was explained last month in the Texas case of Tyson v. Austin Eating Disorders Partners, LLC. Edward Tyson worked for Austin Eating Disorders Partners (AED) as medical director of AED’s Austin eating disorder treatment center. After Tyson was removed from his position, he asked his accountant to inquire about AED’s improved financials. Mark McCallum, CFO of AED, responded to the inquiry with an email to Tyson, AED’s Board of Directors, AED’s attorney, and AED’s accountant stating that AED’s financials had improved because Tyson had been a bad medical director who had no idea how to run the treatment center and took kickbacks for referring patients to other facilities. In a Second Amended Complaint asserting various defamation theories, Tyson conceded that McCallum’s email was subject to a qualified privilege, but argued that he overcame the privilege by alleging that McCallum acted with actual malice. AED and McCallum moved to dismiss the claim.

The court noted that actual malice is shown where a statement is made with knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard as to its truth. Actual malice is not the same as ill will. The key to an actual malice showing, the court held, is evidence that the speaker knew or had reason to know that his statements were false.

A former bank teller’s defamation and wrongful termination action against Wells Fargo, filed in the Western District of Virginia, has been decided in Wells Fargo’s favor. Judge Samuel G. Wilson granted the bank’s motion for summary judgment due to the failure of the teller to make a coherent, factual showing that the bank was at fault, or that the alleged defamatory statements were false.

The teller, Adrienne Sewell, was terminated for violating the bank’s policies and procedures. Wells Fargo rules limited the amount of cash tellers could retain in their cash drawers. To stay below the maximum, sellers would “sell” cash to a second teller, record the transaction electronically then deliver the cash in person. On several occasions, teller Adrienne Sewell and others failed to physically move the cash, thereby misstating their balance sheets and having too much cash in their bank drawers. At the end of the day, they would “buy back” the cash, thereby righting the balances, but the practice violated bank rules. The bank investigated her activities, gathered documents, and obtained admissions from Sewell and others that they had violated bank policy and procedure.

Sewell sued Wells Fargo for defamation, breach of contract, and wrongful termination. She argued the bank defamed her by telling others she had falsified documents and had violated bank procedures.

Indiana lawyer Mark K. Phillips has filed a libel and slander action against two media outlets, Nexstar Broadcasting Group and Mission Broadcasting, for mistakenly identifying him as a child molester. In 2011, Mark S. Birge, Phillips’ client, pleaded guilty to child molestation in an Indiana court. When the local news companies reported this story during the next two days, they mistakenly announced instead that Birge’s attorney, Mark Phillips, had been convicted of child molestation and would be sentenced to up to 16 years in prison. The media companies published a correction to the story over a month later, but Phillips filed suit anyway for slander per se, libel per se, and defamation. He seeks more than $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Likely issues will include whether the lawyer is a “public figure” required to prove malice, the extent to which the media outlets are at fault for the mistaken report, and the legal effect of the subsequent correction.

Phillips asserts that the defendants are liable for defamation because they falsely identified him as the child molester knowing the statements to be false. As a result, he claims he “has suffered ridicule, damage to his TV.jpgprofessional and personal reputation within the community and the tri-state area, emotional and physical pain, disgrace, and stress within his marriage and with his family, embarrassment, and loss of opportunity to achieve his potential as a professional.” Phillips suggests that the severity of the impact of these stories on him is a result of the fact that he is an active member of the community. He has coached a Special Olympics basketball team for over 18 years, is a member of multiple legal professional groups and country clubs, and maintains an active legal practice in multiple states.

A federal court in Massachusetts has dismissed a defamation case against Barbara Walters brought by a woman claiming to be the former lesbian lover of Walters’ daughter. In Walters autobiography, Audition: A Memoir, she refers to the woman, Nancy Shay, by first name only in a two-sentence statement. Walters wrote that “Nancy” was kicked out of high school for “bad behavior” after being “found in a nearby town high on God-knows-what” with Walters’ daughter. Shay did not deny being suspended from school but claimed the statements were defamatory because they falsely portrayed her as a user of illicit drugs. The court found the allegations were insufficient to state a claim for defamation and dismissed the case.

In Massachusetts, as in Virginia and every other state, there can be no defamation liability without “fault” on behalf of the defendant. For private plaintiffs (as opposed to public figures), this requires (at a minimum) an allegation that the defendant acted negligently with respect to determining the truth. Moreover, a statement is incapable of defamatory meaning unless it would tend to hold the walters.jpgplaintiff up to scorn, hatred, ridicule or contempt “in the minds of any considerable and respectable segment in the community.” In other words, a statement will not be considered defamatory if only a very small group of persons would view it as derogatory.

In her brief, Shay argued that Walters was at fault for making a false statement as to the reason for her suspension and that the statement damaged her reputation amongst the former faculty and students of the high school from which she was suspended. Alternatively, Shay suggested that, even if the statement that she was expelled for “bad behavior” was true, the allusion to drug use was made maliciously.

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