Florida Supreme Court hears 'false light' cases

Amy Harder | Libel | Feature | March 10, 2008

The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments last Thursday on two cases involving false-light invasion of privacy. One case, involving the news media, will have the court decide whether a businessman’s lawsuit against the Pensacola News Journal should be considered a false light or libel claim, and what timeframe for statute of limitations should apply.

The suit stems from a story the Journal published in 1998 about Joe Anderson Jr., founder of a road paving company, which said he “shot and killed” his wife. Two sentences later, the article stated that she died in a hunting accident.

Anderson, who said the description suggested he murdered his wife, successfully sued the paper under a false light claim and was awarded $18.3 million, but an appeals court reversed the verdict, holding that Anderson had inaccurately filed it as a false light claim in an attempt to skirt a two-year statute of limitations on libel claims. False light suits have a four-year statute of limitations.

A similar case looks more closely as to whether Florida should adopt a false light claim or not. A woman sued the organization Jews for Jesus under a false light claim after it reported that her stepson had convinced her to recite a Christian prayer and align with the group. Since the woman was Jewish, she alleged this cast her in a false light in her community. The trial court dismissed the case, but a court of appeals sought the high court out to see if Florida should even allow these types of suits.

Robert Bernius, the media attorney for the Journal, said the case is clearly a libel claim and that it opens the door for anyone to sue newspapers when they’re offended by what’s printed -- even if the information is true.

“Writing an article that is entirely true about a matter of public interest is what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?” Bernius said. “If somebody claims they were offended by it and can sue based on that claim and recover money on that claim, it’s a little difficult to avoid a lawsuit.”

The lawyer representing Anderson, Bruce Rogow, said everything in the article was factually accurate; therefore it cannot be defamation because defamation, by definition, requires the information to be false.

Sam Morley, general counsel for the Florida Press Association, said Anderson’s case most closely resembles that of defamation by implication because what was implied – that Anderson murdered his wife -- was false. This falls under libel laws and the shorter time frame to sue.

He said the issue at stake is whether a false light tort should exist at all in Florida, since it creates more questionable ways for people to sue newspapers.

“Defamation takes care of 99.9 percent of all cases out there,” Morley said. “If you bring in false light, you’re basically duplicating what’s already there in terms of protection with something that’s vague and amorphous and leads to abuse.”