“Who you calling a thief?” said the cannibal.
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.