Firefighter pictured in sex scandal article loses libel claims against Daily News, appeals | Pennsylvania Record
Per the order of a federal judge, the libel lawsuit brought by a Philadelphia firefighter against the New York Daily News earlier this year has been dismissed, though court records indicate he has appealed that verdict.
This was an interesting case that really could have gone either way, and well may be reversed on appeal.
The New York Daily News reported on a sex scandal at the fire department, and the article included two photographs. The first was a generic stock photo showing firefighters at the scene of a fire, but inexplicably the newspaper chose to use a photo of firefighter Francis Cheney II, taken during a formal 9/11 ceremony. The newspaper’s intent was simply to use Cheney as a representation of a firefighter, but a casual reader could easily draw the conclusion that he was one of the firefighters involved in the sex scandal.
I would have anticipated that the defamation claim he filed would fail, but he also filed a claim for false light invasion of privacy, and that claim certainly had some merit.
Here is the jury instruction for false light (in California):
1802. False Light
[Name of plaintiff] claims that [name of defendant] violated [his/her] right to privacy. To establish this claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:
1. That [name of defendant] publicized information or material that showed [name of plaintiff] in a false light;
2. That the false light created by the publication would be highly offensive to a reasonable person in [name of plaintiff]’s position;
3. [That there is clear and convincing evidence that [name of defendant] knew the publication would create a false impression about [name of plaintiff] or acted with reckless disregard for the truth;]
[That [name of defendant] was negligent in determining the truth of the information or whether a false impression would be created by its publication;]
4. [That [name of plaintiff] was harmed; and]
[That [name of plaintiff] sustained harm to [his/her] property, business, profession, or occupation [including money spent as a result of the statement(s)]; and]
5. That [name of defendant]’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing [name of plaintiff]’s harm.
[In deciding whether [name of defendant] publicized the information or material, you should determine whether it was made public either by communicating it to the public at large or to so many people that the information or material was substantially certain to become public knowledge.]
Defamation is an intentional tort, but false light can be established with a showing of negligence. A jury could certainly find that it is negligent to post a picture of a random firefighter in an article about a sex scandal, and that an average reader might assume that the firefighter must in some way be involved with the scandal.
But the judge in Pennsylvania disagreed, and threw out all of Cheney’s claims. The judge found that the photo provided sufficient context such that a reader would know that no link between the photo of Cheney and the sex scandal was intended.
This is an important factor in any defamation (or false light) claim. The fact that a statement or photo can be interpreted in a defamatory sense is not enough. The statement must be given a reasonable interpretation.