State high court applies actual malice to private figure
NEW JERSEY–In mid-March the New Jersey Supreme Court in Trenton ruled that a business that sues for libel must prove the statements were made with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — when they allege activity that would violate the state’s Consumer Fraud Act.
Turf Lawnmower Repair, Inc. sued The (Hackensack) Record in Superior Court in Hackensack after the newspaper published an article accusing John Gloria, the repair shop’s owner, of deceptive business practices that “ripped off” consumers. The article quoted former employees, customers and competitors to support the allegations.
The court held that the actual malice standard would apply to the libel case because allegations of consumer fraud are a matter of legitimate public concern. In libel actions brought by a private person, the actual malice standard applies when the statements affect the health and safety of the public.
The court explained that if all the allegations contained in the article supported a consumer-fraud complaint, then the actual malice standard would apply. The court ruled that an average reader of the article in The Record could conclude that the repair shop’s practices were deceptive, misleading and in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.
After finding that the higher standard applied, the court ruled the repair shop had failed to demonstrate actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. (Turf Lawnmower Repair v. Bergen Record; Media Counsel: Peter G. Banta, Hackensack)