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Cancer not a "loathsome disease" for purposes of libel claim

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Cancer not a "loathsome disease" for purposes of libel claim 07/14/97 NEW YORK--The Court of Appeals in Albany, the state's…

Cancer not a “loathsome disease” for purposes of libel claim

07/14/97

NEW YORK–The Court of Appeals in Albany, the state’s highest court, ruled in late May that cancer is not a “loathsome disease” which damages reputation or causes harm if reported.

The court unanimously affirmed the dismissal of a libel suit by a lower court in New York City. Chen Sam, a public relations consultant, sued the Star after the tabloid revealed in an article on Elizabeth Taylor, one of Sam’s clients, that Sam had cancer. Sam has since died, and the suit was carried on by her estate.

Chen claimed that her business would be hurt by the publication, since cancer is often linked with death, leading to a potential loss of confidence on the part of her clients.

The court disagreed. To be actionable as words that may injure another in his or her profession, the challenged statement must reflect upon her performance or be incompatible with the proper conduct of her business. The statement did not defame Chen in her trade, business or profession, the court ruled.

Looking at the story as a whole, the reported cancer diagnosis “does not connote an inability to service her public relations clients,” the court said.

Cancer would not today be considered a loathsome disease, the court said, since it “is neither contagious nor attributed in any way to socially repugnant conduct.”

Though the court did not address whether it was determining whether the allegation would constitute “libel per se” — an allegation so harmful on its face that it requires no proof of damage — the Star argued that a report of cancer does not constitute libel per se.

The court did not address the truth or falsity of the claim because the issue was not yet before it, Star attorney Slade Metcalf explained. He added that Taylor later said that Sam had in fact died of the disease. (Golub v. Enquirer/Star Group, Inc.; Media Counsel: Slade Metcalf, New York)