As the old saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?* In the context of defamation law, the saying could be, “if no one knows it’s you, is the statement still defamatory?” The answer is no.
I get a surprising number of calls like this. Now that anyone can publish a book with a few mouse clicks, more people are publishing their life stories, and those stories always manage to irritate someone. That someone then calls me, stating that some person in the book is them, and they want to sue for defamation. They go on to explain that the name given is not theirs, that the geographic location given is someplace they have never lived or visited, and the gender has been changed, but they know it’s them and damn it they want to sue. In some cases it is clear that the caller made the whole thing up in their mind, but in other cases it is clear that the person referenced really is the caller. Even so, if the author changed the identity so much that no one would recognize them, there is no case.
Today’s example involves rocker Sammy Hagar. He wrote a book called “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock“, which tells a story of a woman he had sex with following a concert, who later claimed to be pregnant. He explains that he paid her some support during the alleged pregnancy, but that no child was ever born and he now thinks the entire thing was simple extortion. Had he named her, that would have supported a claim for defamation since he accuses her of a criminal act, but she is identified only as a “Playboy bunny from California”. Apparently the woman in question was a Playboy bunny, but Hagar changed the state from Michigan to California, perhaps specifically to make her less identifiable.
Nonetheless, the still unidentified “Playboy bunny from California” sued Hagar for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Not surprisingly, the trial court today threw out the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Linda Reade ruled that Hagar did not defame the woman because he did not refer to her by name in the book – identifying her erroneously as a “Playboy bunny from California” – and the woman did not prove she suffered any financial, reputational or emotional injuries from his statements. Only individuals who already knew about their relationship, not the general public, would have understood Hagar was referring to her in the book, she added.
Although Hagar’s statements in ‘Red’ brought back painful memories for Doe, the evidence does not support a finding that Hagar’s conduct was extreme enough to permit the court to find outrageous conduct sufficient to support Doe’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, Reade wrote.
* It’s a deep thought, but I’ve always thought it was kind of silly because of course a falling tree makes a sound. The laws of physics don’t stop just because no one is there.
A story in this month’s California Lawyer magazine caught my eye as an excellent case study on a point I try to explain to clients, sometimes unsuccessfully, about defamation actions.
Travel with me back to 1847 to the ill-fated Donner Party. While crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains near present day Truckee, the wagon train could go no further and the travelers had to hunker down and try to wait out the extreme winter weather. Of the original 89 pioneers, only 45 were rescued, and it was soon learned that they had survived by eating the others.
One of the survivors was a German immigrant name Lewis Keseberg. Keseberg admitted to cannibalism, but the authorities became convinced that Keseberg had not always waited for someone to die from exposure before using them as a food source, and he was put on trial for six murders. Although he was acquitted for lack of evidence, one of the rescuers told gruesome stories about Keseberg’s cannibalistic ways, and those stories were printed in the newspaper.
Keseberg sued for defamation, which was an amazing feat in and of itself because California was not yet a state, so such a suit must have been a procedural nightmare. He sought $1,000 in damages.
In what may have been the first defamation action on state soil, Keseberg won his lawsuit, but the court awarded only $1, and ordered Keseberg to pay the court costs.
And therein lies the lesson that some potential clients refuse to accept. Winning a defamation action is more than just proving each of the elements of libel or slander. Context is everything. The damages in a defamation action arise from the loss of reputation. A person can have a reputation that is so bad, that defamatory statements simply don’t make it any worse.
In Keseberg v. Coffeemeyer, Keseberg had been falsely accused of stealing from the people he ate. He was very offended by that accusation, and headlines in the paper that read, “Where Did Keseberg Hide the Donner Treasure?” But here’s the thing, Keseberg, YOU ATE DEAD PEOPLE! You are already off most dinner invitation lists. The added claim that you took the money of the DEAD PEOPLE YOU ATE is not a big blow to your reputation.
I’m reminded of the line from Star Wars.
Princess Leia shouts at Han Solo, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking, nerf-herder.”
To which Han Solo responds, “Who’s scruffy-looking?”
You will not succeed in a defamation action if, out of five terrible things said about you, only one is false.
The defendant in this case was Elvia Orrillo-Blas, MD, an emergency room doctor at a hospital in the Inland Empire. When it was decided that her annual contract to provide services to the hospital would not be renewed, she took to the Internet, posting multiple defamatory messages on Craigslist.com about the director she felt was responsible for the decision not to renew her contract. In the anonymous postings, she would sometimes pretend to be a nurse or patient at the hospital when making her false claims about the director. The director retained us to sue for Internet defamation.
One problem we had to overcome in order to prevail in this action was the fact that the director was so well regarded that witness after witness talked glowingly about him during the trial. That was great to show the falsity of the statements published by the defendant doctor, but it also showed that the Plaintiff had not suffered a significant loss of reputation since the witnesses still loved him. The jurors later explained that this love-fest was the reason they awarded a relatively moderate amount of compensatory damages, but during the trial this left me to wonder if they were fully appreciating the malice behind what defendant had done.
Not to worry; the jury came roaring back in the punitive damages phase and made very clear with the amount of punitive damages that the defendant doctor needed to be punished for her conduct. In closing argument I had explained that cases like this actually promote freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas that we hold so dear in America, because those ideals are not served by knowing falsity. The jury apparently agreed.
As the icing on the cake, the judge then granted our request for injunctive relief, prohibiting the doctor from defaming our client in the future. Although each instance of defamation is actionable, repeatedly suing a serial defamer is not the best solution because of the expense and delay in getting to trial. With an injunction from the court, the doctor can actually be jailed if she repeats her false claims about our client and is found to be in contempt of court for defying the court’s order.