Hypothetical Cases #2

  1. (Aside: I just can’t help but think that a person with a name like Tornello Tortfeasor has to be guilty! Libel is a tort, and a tortfeasor is one who commits a tort. This was a clue, right?)

    Because Tortfeasor will very likely be found guilty of civil libel. The plaintiffs can bring a successful libel suit if they establish the five elements for libel, and it seems that they can.

    1. Publication: It is virtually impossible to imagine, much less prove, that not a single (third-party) person viewed the Suburban Shopper. (If the owner never managed to sell any copies or get any subscriptions, he’d have no readers—and no reason to keep publishing it!)

    2. Identification: We don’t know how many members are in the Riders, but the group itself is specifically identified. Furthermore, the comments implicate everyone (“the whole gang,” “the lot of them”), so each member could claim identification.

    3. Defamation: The remarks are clearly libelous; Tortfeasor is accusing the group of illegal activities, including public intoxication and possessing deadly weapons. He further implies that they are dangerous and should be jailed on the basic idea of making a pre-emptive arrest before they can harm anyone. These are baseless ad hominem attacks against the members.

    4. Fault: Tortfeasor’s biased writing gives him little credibility as a trustworthy news source, and he clearly did not exercise “reasonable care in preparation of the story,” especially in light of the fact that the plaintiffs provide evidence countering the accusations. His behavior was negligent.

    5. Damage: The plaintiffs could possibly win for presumed damages, if the court finds the case is not a matter of public concern and negligence is proven. Actual damages could possibly be proven, since the group certainly could have suffered damage to reputation or damage to esteem / social standing.


  1. The corporation did have a case. One of the types of libel is damage to a corporation’s integrity / credit / ability to carry on business, and both accusations are clearly damaging. Few things can be more damaging to a business’s reputation than to say that it is in financial trouble. In this instance, because of the limited amount of information presented, it is difficult (if not downright impossible) to safely say whether this would be an instance in which the corporation could be classified as a public figure for the purposes of a libel suit.

    If the Foundry was not classified as a public figure, it would have to prove negligence; otherwise, it would have to prove actual malice to establish libel. Actual malice was defined in New York Times v. Sullivan as “knowledge that the information was false” or that it was published “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” The Foundry could have grounds to at least prove negligence, though; for example, the defendant likely could have avoided the situation by checking with the Foundry before claiming it financially unsound. The Foundry could almost certainly prove special damages, if nothing else.


  2. In this instance, no, and only criminal libel suits can involve libel of the deceased. However, if what had happened was that her son had been defamed, filed a libel suit and then died before the court settled the matter, Mrs. Harvey could pursue the case if the state had a survival statute. But the question indicates that this was not the case, so the answer is no.


  3. Probably not. A jet set is an international social group of wealthy individuals (who take part in exclusive social activities around the world). A large city’s jet set suggests that the group is likely a relatively large one. Considering that a jet set consists of people who are wealthy and socially active, extravagant clothing—including “sensational gowns” (with “fur trim”)—likely would not be an unusual characteristic of physical appearance. It may be that Mrs. Smith is known in the circle for “the gowns described,” but this is not necessarily an exclusive and particular reference to Mrs. Smith. It is also stated that others in the same circle were also taking part in “couples swapping,” so there is probably not enough to distinguish her from others in the group, and those others are likely too numerous to be able to bring suit, either.


  4. He would have a case, because headlines (and photo captions) can be libelous and give a wrong or misleading meaning, even if the body of the story makes it clear that the headline or caption in question is erroneous. Oftentimes people only read the headline of a newspaper article (or just the headline and first paragraph or two), and so they may not read far enough into the story to find the correct information and deduce the headline’s error.


  5. No, the court would likely rule in favor of the defendant on the basis of the single mistake rule. The book refers to Bowes v. Magna Concepts, Inc. in the single mistake rule. Dr. Brown’s argument was probably that the paper was libelous because it damaged his reputation as a doctor because (according to him) the implication was that he was incompetent.

    (Aside: I imagine that, although it probably wouldn’t hold up as a solid argument, a person in Dr. Brown’s might be inclined to argue that the newspaper’s story is actionable and was using the magnitude of the situation to suggest not just one mistake, but an overarching pattern of incompetence. That is, he might say that he was being accused of an entire “domino effect” of incompetent decisions / misdiagnoses, including not recognizing the broken neck, incorrectly diagnosing the problem as drunkenness, prescribing no treatment other than ‘sleep it off,’ and therefore being a contributing factor to Wirtz’ death.)


  6. Within the context of the question, whether Mr. Schultz sued for libel or slander is questionable. In question is the “sermon read by a leading minister.” “Read” could have two meanings. It could mean “he read directly from a script of his sermon,” or it could mean “he delivered the sermon,” the latter not necessarily meaning a script (another example: “I read him his rights”).

    Either way, scripted comments are generally classified as libel; off-the-cuff remarks are generally considered slander. Once Schultz learned whether the comment about him was scripted or off-the-cuff, the answer would determine which he would sue for.

    Whether or not he recovered is also questionable, since different cases in different states have resulted in different verdicts. In Snowden v. Pearl River Broadcasting Corp., the court found that the radio station was guilty and should have used a digital delay device to prevent the defamatory comments from airing; five years later, in Adams v. Frontier Broadcasting, the court ruled against Adams, stating that forcing the use of a delay device would be a form of censorship. Schultz might win if he argued a particularly strong case, but it would depend on the law in his state, as well as what the precedent / leading case on the subject had decided.


  7. He probably could, since it was libel imputing disease, in this case a communicable one. Saying that someone has a sexually transmitted disease, as it’s now called, is not only divulging information that shouldn’t be (medical records are private), but it is also (in this case) false and potentially libel per quod, since it could open the door to sexual and moral implications about the person.