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Pensacola newspaper wins appeal in "false light" case

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Privacy   ·   Oct. 24, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Privacy   ·   Oct. 24, 2006

Pensacola newspaper wins appeal in “false light” case

  • An appeals court reverses an $18.28 million judgment for a man who claimed a Florida newspaper portrayed him as a murderer in reporting that he shot his wife in a hunting accident.

Oct. 24, 2006  ·   An appeals court in Florida on Friday reversed a judgment of $18.28 million against the Pensacola News Journal and its parent company, Gannett Co.

Joe Anderson originally sued the News Journal in 2001 for libel, stating there were inaccuracies in stories the newspaper wrote about him and his road paving company.

But defamation claims carry a two-year statute of limitations and some of the stories cited were older than that. Anderson amended his lawsuit, alleging that the newspaper invaded his privacy with one 1998 story that stated Anderson had shot and killed his wife. Two sentences later, the article stated that law enforcement officials had determined the incident was a hunting accident.

Anderson admitted the story was factually correct but portrayed him in a “false light” by implying he had “murdered his wife and gotten away with it,” according to the appeals court opinion. A jury awarded him $18.28 million in damages in 2003.

The news community was concerned about the false light theory as a mechanism for prosecuting news companies and journalists because a false light case does not require that the paper printed something false, only that it would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”

“The statements at issue here are true,” said Barbara Wall, a lawyer for Gannett. “If the case had come down on the other way, it would have put journalists and publishers at risk of prosecution for truthful reporting.”

The court also noted that the false light claim is often rejected by courts because “it duplicates a cause of action for defamation while allowing the plaintiff to escape the strict requirements that are designed to ensure freedom of expression.”

The court noted that false light claims are controversial among the courts and said that the state Supreme Court “never had the occasion to decide whether such a cause of action actually exists in Florida.”

The court did not rule on the merit of the false light claim in this case but dismissed it on the basis that it was “not distinguishable” from the defamation suit and therefore subject to the two-year statute of limitations for defamation claims, not the four-year statute of limitations that applies to other torts.

Wall said she was “delighted” the court ruled in favor of the newspaper on the statute of limitations issue.

“If they hadn’t, the press would have not only been able to be prosecuted for true statements with no proof of falsity, but the longer statute of limitations would leave the press very vulnerable,” she said.

(Gannett Co. v. Anderson, Media Counsel: Robert Bernius, Nixon Peabody, Washington, D.C.)HS

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