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Outrage claim against newspaper cannot stand

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Neighborhood resident could not demonstrate any harm from interview with newspaper From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media…

Neighborhood resident could not demonstrate any harm from interview with newspaper

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cannot be liable for revealing the identity of a source, even if a reporter promised confidentiality, an Atlanta trial judge ruled on March 13. The court dismissed the case a man brought against the newspaper for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and promissory estoppel after it quoted him in a story about a crime in his neighborhood.

“Georgia courts have repeatedly made clear that intentional infliction of emotional distress claims are not available as a matter of law where the tortious conduct complained of is the publication of a news article, even where those affected by crime object to the publication of their identity,” Fulton County Judge Susan Forsling said in the opinion.

On April 5, 1999, Jerome Crawl gave interviews to television and print media about a murder investigation in his Atlanta neighborhood. At the time, Crawl’s neighbors, Miriam Hollis and her 19-year-old son Brandon, were missing and later found murdered 30 miles away. Crawl spoke with reporters off-camera.

Crawl told Journal-Constitution reporter Bill Montgomery his name and details about the Hollises and a suspicious car he saw in the neighborhood. In his article the next day, Montgomery quoted Crawl about the suspicious car and tension between Hollis and her son.

Crawl sued Montgomery and the newspaper, claiming the publication of his name constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. Crawl never alleged that the article was inaccurate, only that Montgomery had promised to keep his name confidential. Montgomery denied he made any such promise.

Forsling ruled the claims were barred by both the federal Constitution and Georgia law.

Under the federal constitution, the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed because Crawl failed to allege an economic injury beyond emotional distress. In a response to a pre-trial question, Crawl said he suffered “emotional distress, fear for my life, discomfort in my surroundings.” This, the court said, was insufficient.

The court cited a recent federal district court opinion from Washington, D.C., that dismissed a claim brought by a woman against Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. That opinion stands for the proposition that if a party seeks “harm to reputation” damages or “state of mind” damages, the claim must meet the requirements of a defamation claim. (See NM&L, Fall 2000)

“Plaintiff here is seeking state of mind damages, which cannot be recovered without proving the elements of defamation, including falsity,” Forsling said

in the Crawl case. “Plaintiff cannot do so.”

Forsling also ruled Georgia law barred the claims. A claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress requires that the conduct of the defendant be “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency.”

“Even assuming that on this occasion plaintiff’s name was published in violation of a promise, the publication of plaintiff’s name with statements that he admittedly made to a news reporter is not sufficiently outrageous to state a claim,” the court ruled.

The court also said no evidence existed to show that Montgomery intended to harm Crawl. Such an intention is also required in a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Finally, the court underscored the notion in Georgia law that inclusion in a news article of a newsworthy event will not serve as a basis for a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Crawl’s invasion of privacy claim failed because he could point to no information revealed by Montgomery that violated his personal right of privacy.

Finally, Crawl’s claim for promissory estoppel also was rejected by the court. Promissory estoppel is a theory of law that allows a party to recover damages if he relied on a promise of another to his detriment. Crawl alleged that he relied on Montgomery’s promise of confidentiality and was subsequently harmed.

“Georgia courts have repeatedly rejected claims premised on the contention that a reporter breached an alleged promise to a source where the source failed to produce evidence indicating the resulting publication was false,” Forsling said in denying the claim.