Comedian can’t get damages from magazine’s parent company
CALIFORNIA–Comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s motion for a new trial, punitive damages, and leave to amend his libel complaint to plead an “alter ego” theory of liability was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Pasadena (9th Cir.). The court held that although Star Magazine had defamed Dangerfield, its parent company, GP Group, Inc., was not liable because it was not involved in the editorial process of the magazine, and Dangerfield had failed to plead an alter ego theory in his original complaint.
The appellate court’s early September decision upheld a District Court ruling that Star had libeled Dangerfield, but that its parent company was not liable. Star published an article about Dangerfield alleging that a Las Vegas casino said that Dangerfield was drinking heavily, smoking marijuana and using cocaine during a stay there.
The District Court awarded Dangerfield $1 for emotional distress, $1 for damage to his reputation, and $45,000 in presumed damages, but denied him punitive damages because Dangerfield failed to submit evidence showing that the financial net worth of Star would allow for punitive damages.
Dangerfield had tried to amend his complaint to plead an alter ego theory of liability, which would claim that Star and GP Group are the same entities and equally liable for the article, allowing Dangerfield to collect punitive damages from the more profitable parent group. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, holding that Dangerfield failed to allege such a theory in his original complaint, and could not argue the issue on appeal.
Dangerfield claimed that he should receive a new trial because the evidence showed that GP Group played a responsible part in the publication of the defamatory article in Star.
However, the court held that Dangerfield must prove actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — with respect to both the Star and GP Group. The court held that Dangerfield could not simply argue that because GP Group published the article, it was also liable. The court ruled that there was no evidence that GP Group acted with actual malice, and the editorial responsibility was strictly with the magazine. The parent company was not involved in the investigation, writing, fact-checking or editing of the article, the court held.
The court found that Star operated at a net loss, and did not have the ability to pay punitive damages. (Dangerfield v. Star Editorial, Inc.; Media Counsel: Vincent Cox, Los Angeles)