Context is everything in a defamation action.
In the recent Ninth Circuit case of Gardner v. Martino, plaintiffs sold a new boat from their showroom. The buyer of the boat claimed the boat was defective, and went onto a radio show to talk about the failure of the plaintiffs to address the problems. During the show, the host, Tom Martino, listened to the complaints of the buyers and commented that the sellers were “lying” when they claimed that they had tested the boat after performing certain repairs.
The plaintiffs/sellers took umbrage with that remark, and sued Martino, the radio station and the production company for defamation. Defendants responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the statement was merely an opinion and therefore could not constitute defamation. The trial court agreed with defendants and ruled that as a matter of law the comments did not constitute defamation. Under the anti-SLAPP statute, plaintiffs were ordered to pay all of defendants’ attorney fees.
I have commented here before that far too many attorneys think they can take on a defamation action, treating it like any other tort claim. This case illustrates what can happen when the attorney does not fully understand all the nuances of free speech and defamation. No doubt when the attorney was told the radio host called the plaintiffs “liars” that was viewed as an automatic case of defamation. And, in fact, in most cases calling someone a liar would constitute defamation. But here, the attorney apparently failed to consider the context of the statement.
A true opinion cannot constitute defamation unless it is offered as an assertion of fact. While it was true that the radio program host accused the plaintiffs of “lying” to their customer, that could not seriously be taken as an assertion of fact given the context of the show. As the court observed, “The Tom Martino Show is a radio talk show program that contains many of the elements that would reduce the audiences’ expectation of leaning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host and heated controversy. In the context of the show, Martino was simply listening to the complaint of a caller, and possessed no independent knowledge of the facts beyond what he was being told. It could not be taken, in that context, that he intended his “lying” comment to be taken as a verifiable fact.
The two corporate defendants in this case were Westwood One and Clear Channel Communications, both huge companies. No doubt these communication giants hired big firms that billed hundreds of hours at $650 per hour. Now the plaintiffs, who felt hurt by being attacked on the radio and just wanted to clear their reputations, are on the hook for perhaps $100,000 in legal fees.
I am all in favor of taking steps to defend your reputation – it’s what I do – but proceed with caution with an attorney that really knows this area of the law.