Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Types of Defamation in Texas: Libel vs Slander, Per Se vs. Per Quod

DEFAMATION DEFINED Defamation is generally defined as the invasion of a person's interest in his or her reputation and good name. Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 111, at 771 (5th ed. 1984 & Supp. 1988). TWO CATEGORIES DEPENDING ON MODE OF COMMUNICATION Defamation claims are divided into two categories depending on how the defamatory statement was communicated: libel for written communications and slander for oral communications.[5] LEGAL CLASSIFICATION OF DEFAMATION CLAIMS: Per se vs. per quod Defamation claims are also divided into two categories, defamation per se and defamation per quod, according to the level of proof required in order to make them actionable. Texas Disposal Sys. Landfill, Inc. v. Waste Mgmt. Holdings, Inc., 219 S.W.3d 563, 580 (Tex.App.--Austin 2007, pet. denied); Moore v. Waldrop, 166 S.W.3d 380, 384 (Tex.App.--Waco 2005, no pet.). Statements that are defamatory per quod are actionable only upon allegation and proof of damages. Texas Disposal, 219 S.W.3d at 580; Alaniz v. Hoyt, 105 S.W.3d 330, 345 (Tex.App.--Corpus Christi 2003, no pet.). That is, before a plaintiff can recover for defamation per quod, he must carry his burden of proof as to both the defamatory nature of the statement and the amount of damages caused by the publication of that statement. Texas Disposal, 219 S.W.3d at 580; See also Leyendecker & Assocs., Inc. v. Wechter, 683 S.W.2d 369, 374 (Tex. 1984); Peshak v. Greer, 13 S.W.3d 421, 426 (Tex.App.--Corpus Christi 2000, no pet.). By contrast, in cases involving defamation per se, damages are presumed to flow from the nature of the defamation itself and, in most situations, a plaintiff injured by a defamatory per se communication is entitled to recover general damages without specific proof of the existence of harm. Bentley v. Bunton, 94 S.W.3d 561, 604 (Tex. 2002) ("Our law presumes that statements that are defamatory per se injure the victim's reputation and entitle him to recover general damages, including damages for loss of reputation and mental anguish."); Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Hines, 252 S.W.3d 496, 501 (Tex.App--Houston [14th Dist.] 2008, pet. denied); but see Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 347-48, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974) (holding that, so long as they do not impose liability without fault, States are free to define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability in defamation suits where a private plaintiff sues a media defendant for speech involving a public issue). The United States Supreme Court later clarified that the constitutional requirements of Gertz do not prohibit the application of strict liability to defamation suits involving private-figure plaintiffs who sue nonmedia defendants for speech involving nonpublic issues. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 760-61, 105 S.Ct. 2939, 86 L.Ed.2d 593 (1985). In suits involving such situations, courts applying Texas law have applied strict liability in defamation per se causes of action. See Thomas-Smith v. Mackin, 238 S.W.3d 503, 509 (Tex.App.--Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, no pet.); Peshak v. Greer, 13 S.W.3d 421, 425-26 (Tex.App.--Corpus Christi 2000, no pet.); Snead v. Redland Aggregates Ltd., 998 F.2d 1325, 1334 (5th Cir. 1993). Because the decision whether an alleged defamatory statement is defamatory per se or per quod affects the level of proof required, that question is initially determined by the trial court as a matter of law. Turner v. KTRK TV, Inc., 38 S.W.3d 103, 114 (Tex. 2000); Musser v. Smith Protective Servs., Inc., 723 S.W.2d 653, 654-55 (Tex. 1987). A communication is considered libel per se when it is so obviously hurtful to the person aggrieved that no proof of its injurious character is required to make it actionable. Clark v. Jenkins, 248 S.W.3d 418, 437 (Tex.App.--Amarillo 2009, pet. denied), cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 130 S.Ct. 52, 175 L.Ed.2d 21 (2009); Houseman v. Publicaciones Paso Del Norte, S.A. de C.V., 242 S.W.3d 518, 524 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2007, no pet.). A false statement will typically be classified as defamatory per se if it injures a person in his office, profession, or occupation; Morrill v. Cisek, 226 S.W.3d 545, 549 (Tex.App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.); charges a person with the commission of a crime; Leyendecker, 683 S.W.2d at 374; or imputes to him a loathsome disease. Bolling v. Baker, 671 S.W.2d 559, 570 (Tex.App.--San Antonio 1984, no writ). Whether a given statement is reasonably capable of a defamatory meaning is a question to be decided by the trial court as matter of law. See Musser, 723 S.W.2d at 654-55. The trial court should construe the alleged defamatory communication as a whole in light of the surrounding circumstances based upon how a reasonable person of ordinary intelligence would perceive it, considering the surrounding circumstances and the context of the statement. New Times, Inc. v. Isaacks, 146 S.W.3d 144, 153 (Tex. 2003), cert. denied, 545 U.S. 1105, 125 S.Ct. 2557, 162 L.Ed.2d 276 (2005); Turner, 38 S.W.3d at 114. This is an objective test, not a subjective one. New Times, Inc., 146 S.W.3d at 157. Thus, the parties' opinion of the statements, Musser v. Smith, 690 S.W.2d 56, 58 (Tex.App.--Houston [14th Dist.] 1985), aff'd, 723 S.W.2d 653 (Tex. 1987), or the defendant's intent in making the statements have no bearing on whether they are defamatory. Peshak, 13 S.W.3d at 426 ("We assume the words were intended because they were used.") "Common sense requires courts to understand the statement as ordinary men and women would"; Moore, 166 S.W.3d at 385, and the question whether a statement is defamatory per se is only submitted to the jury if the contested language is ambiguous or of doubtful import. See Denton Pub. Co. v. Boyd, 460 S.W.2d 881, 884 (Tex. 1970). Otherwise, it is an issue of law for the trial court to decide. Musser, 723 S.W.2d at 655. Therefore, according to this body of law, a written communication, made by a nonmedia defendant, concerning a private-figure individual and pertaining to a nonpublic issue, which is obviously hurtful to the aggrieved party in his profession or occupation, is libel per se. SOURCE: Amarillo Court of Appeals - 07-09-0277-CV - 6/16/11

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