Defamation by implication claim must go to jury
MINNESOTA–Private figure plaintiffs may sue for “defamation by implication,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis unanimously held in early June.
In an opinion written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who was sitting by designation, the court ruled that an otherwise innocent statement can be interpreted by a jury to have a defamatory meaning. Under Minnesota law, “defamation by implication” occurs when one juxtaposes a series of facts to imply a defamatory connection between them or creates a defamatory implication by omitting facts, the court stated. The court found the plaintiff to be a private figure and did not rule on whether a public figure could sue for defamation by implication.
Julian Toney, a dog dealer, sued WCCO-TV for both defamation and defamation by implication for its May 1992 report on dog dealers who sell stolen dogs to research institutions for use in medical research. The trial court granted summary judgment to the television station on all of the statements that Toney claimed were defamatory.
The Court of Appeals reversed as to one statement made during the broadcast in which the reporter said Toney had provided WCCO with information that was “the opposite” of information he had provided to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
WCCO argued that Toney told its reporters that he “seldom” gets dogs from dog pounds and that 1990 USDA records indicate that the opposite is true. Toney denied making the statement to the reporters at all and argued that the broadcast implied that he was a liar and a thief. The court ruled that the conflict should be decided by a jury, and that a jury could find the statement to be defamatory by implication.
The court denied a motion by WCCO to supplement the record with an Administrative Law Judge’s finding — made after the broadcast had aired — that Toney had falsified his USDA records. The court stated that WCCO would have the right to renew its motion on remand before the trial court. (Toney v. WCCO Television; Media Counsel: Paul Hannah, St. Paul)