Libel suit by Simpson houseguest revived by appellate court
NINTH CIRCUIT–A libel suit filed by Kato Kaelin, O.J. Simpson’s infamous houseguest, against the National Examiner was revived by a federal court of appeals in Pasadena (9th Cir.) in late December. Kaelin sued the tabloid over a front-page headline that read: “Cops Think Kato Did It!” in capital letters.
The Examiner maintained “it” referred to perjury and that a second headline and the accompanying text made that clear, but Kaelin asserted the headline defamed him by suggesting he was a suspect in the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife.
Noting that all parties agreed Kaelin is a public figure, the appellate court held that a federal district court in Los Angeles erred in granting summary judgment for the paper, reversed that judgment, and ordered Kaelin’s claim to proceed before a jury. The appellate court concluded that a reasonable juror could find the headline to be defamatory, because a reasonable juror could find the headline characterized Kaelin as a murder suspect, and also could find that editors acted with actual malice in printing the headline.
The October 1995 story, which appeared inside the tabloid on page 17, and a second front-page headline explained that Kaelin’s friends had reported to the Examiner that Kaelin, who testified during Simpson’s trial, feared a perjury prosecution after Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Although the court of appeals noted that a publication must be examined as a whole in order to ascertain whether it conveys a defamatory meaning and that liability “cannot be based on snippets taken out of context,” it concluded that an ordinary reader reasonably could have understood the headline to mean that the police believed Kaelin had committed both murder and perjury. The court acknowledged that the timing of the article — published one week after Simpson’s acquittal — might lead an ordinary person to read the headline as indicating Kaelin was a murder suspect.
In addition, the court found the evidence would support a reasonable juror’s conclusion that the paper’s editors acted with actual malice — meaning the editors possessed knowledge of falsity or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
The evidence cited by the court in support of actual malice included testimony from the Examiner’s editor, who stated he did not consider the headline “accurate to the story;” the paper’s admission that it did not believe Kaelin was a murder suspect; and testimony from the Examiner’s editor during a deposition in which he stated that front-page headlines, as opposed to the stories inside, are “what we sell the paper on” — indicating, according to the court, that the paper had a motive to run a headline that was not accurate. (Kaelin v. Globe Communications; Media Counsel: Amy D. Hogue, Los Angeles)