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Federal appellate court revives fireman’s defamation suit


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jcrews

By Jordan Crews

A federal court of appeals revived a Philadelphia fireman’s defamation and invasion-of-privacy claims against a Philadelphia newspaper, holding that a reasonable person could understand that the newspaper article concerned the fireman.

In January 2015, a Philadelphia newspaper published an article on its website titled, “Heated Sex Scandal Surrounds Philadelphia Fire Department: ‘It’s Bad Stuff.’” The article described a sex scandal within the local fire department. The article stated that the investigation into the scandal “implicates dozens of city employees, including . . . firefighters,” and that those employees could be criminally prosecuted. In the left column of the article was a photo of the fireman, in which his face, though out of focus, was visible. Also, the caption of the photo contained the fireman’s name. The next day, the newspaper published a second article about the scandal, but this time did not include the picture of the fireman.

The fireman had no part in the scandal. He testified that after the article was published, he was inundated with messages from family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
The fireman filed a lawsuit against the newspaper, alleging several claims, including defamation and false light invasion of privacy. The district court dismissed the claims, holding that the fireman could not establish that the defamatory material in the articles was “capable of being reasonably understood as concerning him.” (See April 2016 First Amendment Law Comment for article on district court ruling). The fireman appealed.

Defamation claim
The fireman argued that the district court was wrong in dismissing his defamation claim. To succeed on a defamation claim in Pennsylvania, the defamatory statement must refer to the plaintiff, but the publication does not have to specifically name the plaintiff. A court should ask whether “the defamatory material was capable of being reasonably understood as intended to refer to the complainant.” The newspaper article described a sex scandal in which several firefighters were accused of scandalous behavior. The caption identifying the fireman was the only reference to a firefighter. In addition, the photo of the fireman was placed directly next to the text of the article and underneath the headline. Because several firefighters were implicated and the only name in the publication was the fireman’s, the court of appeals found that “a reasonable reader could conclude that the inclusion of his photograph and name meant to suggest that the text of the article concerned him.”

False light invasion of privacy claim
The court of appeals had to determine whether the district court was wrong in dismissing the fireman’s false light invasion of privacy claim. Under Pennsylvania law, “One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability . . . if (a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.” The district court dismissed this claim because the fireman could not show that a reasonable reader could understand the article to be “of and concerning” the fireman. In other words, the district court dismissed the false light invasion of privacy claim on the same erroneous basis for which it dismissed the defamation claim. Thus, for the same reasons given in its defamation analysis, the court of appeals concluded that “a reasonable reader could understand the article to be ‘of and concerning’ [the fireman].” Accordingly, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal of the fireman’s claims for defamation and false light invasion of privacy.



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