Businessman can pursue defamation suit without showing proof of monetary loss, N.Y. appeals court rules

Lilly Chapa | Libel | News | December 14, 2012

A man accused of throwing a severed horse head in a local politician's pool does not have to prove monetary loss to pursue a defamation lawsuit against his online accusers, an appellate court in New York ruled.

The unanimous ruling, which overturns a state trial court decision, allows businessman David LeBlanc to go forward with litigation against three people who accused him of the crime in online postings. Nobody was ever charged with the act. Because LeBlanc was accused of a serious crime, he does not have to prove that he suffered monetary loss, the court ruled.

“The accusation that the plaintiff placed a horse head in a political rival’s pool, if true, describes conduct that would constitute serious crimes. A false published allegation that a person committed a serious crime is also a ground for asserting a cause of action to recover damages for defamation per se, thus relieving the plaintiff from pleading special damages," according to the order.

LeBlanc, who actively follows local politics, filed a defamation suit in 2008 against former town supervisor Wayne Skinner and his wife for the accusations. A New York Supreme Court, a trial-level court, dropped two of the charges and dismissed the case because LeBlanc could not show proof of monetary loss or harm sustained from the comments.

To bring a defamation lawsuit, the plaintiff generally must show proof that the comments have caused harm and are “of and concerning” the plaintiff. However, proof of harm does not need to be shown if the comments concern a criminal offense or matters harming a person’s business or profession. When any of these types of statements are involved, damage to the plaintiff’s reputation is presumed.

The appeals court upheld the dismissal of two of the charges but allowed LeBlanc to continue to litigate the other charge.

Attorneys for both parties could not be reached for comment.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Identification -- Harm -- Fault (public officials vs. private figures)