Friday, November 7, 2014

Limitations period for defamation & single publication rule as to web-published material


Under Texas law, the statute of limitations for libel is one year after the date that the cause of action accrues. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 16.002(a) (West 2002). To support their limitations ground, appellees relied on "the single publication rule," which our court has adopted in cases alleging mass media libel. See Holloway v. Butler, 662 S.W.2d 688, 690-91 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1983, writ ref'd n.r.e.); see also Williamson v. New Times, Inc., 980 S.W.2d 706, 710 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 1998, no pet.). The "single publication rule" provides,

No person shall have more than one cause of action for damages for libel . . . or any other tort founded upon any single publication or exhibition or utterance, such as any one edition or issue of a newspaper or book or magazine or any one presentation to an audience or any one broadcast over radio or television or any one exhibition of a motion picture. Recovery in any action shall include all damages for any such tort suffered by the plaintiff in all jurisdictions.
Holloway, 662 S.W.2d at 690. When the rule applies, a libel action accrues, for statute-of-limitations purposes, upon "publication." See id. at 692; see also Williamson, 980 S.W.2d at 710. Publication is complete on "the last day of the mass distribution of copies of the printed matter" because that is the day "when the publishers, editors and authors have done all they can to relinquish all right of control, title and interest in the printed matter." See Holloway, 662 S.W.2d at 692; see also Williamson, 980 S.W.2d at 710. Our court rejected the principle that each time a libelous article is brought to the attention of a third person, such as each time a libelous book, paper, or magazine is sold, a new publication has occurred, creating a separate tort. See Holloway, 662 S.W.2d at 690-91. The rationale behind the single-publication rule includes (1) preventing the assertion of stale claims, multiplicity of claims, and problems concerning apportionment of damages, conflicts of laws, and venue, and (2) the fact that the mass communication of a single defamatory statement constitutes, for all practical purposes, a single wrong. See id. at 691. A plaintiff is not limited to a single cause of action in the event the same information appears in separate printings of the same publication or in different publications. Id. at 692. The single publication rule applies strictly to multiple copies of a libelous article published as part of a single printing. Id.

Application of the single publication rule to internet publication

We recognize that the Holloway court defined the single publication rule to include only one cause of action for "any one broadcast over . . . television," but its discussion regarding determining when a publication has occurred focused on printed media, such as a newspaper. See id. at 690-92. Regardless, Mayfield does not challenge application of the single publication rule relative to the television broadcasts at issue; she focuses solely on the internet publication of the reports. In fact, as mentioned above, there is no evidence controverting appellees' proof that the reports were each broadcast only once on television. Thus, we need not further address the single publication rule relative to television broadcasts.

Rather, we turn to Mayfield's argument that the single publication rule should not apply when, as in the present case, a news report is posted on the publisher's webpage. Mayfield suggests a report posted on the internet has a greater potential than a report published in a newspaper or on television to remain publicly available for a long period, be repeatedly viewed, and be viewed by a wide audience. She apparently maintains that a new cause of action for libel accrues, for limitations purposes, each day that the report remains on the internet; i.e., there is a new publication and Mayfield has been defamed every day because the report remains accessible to third parties.

We have not found, and the parties do not cite, any Texas cases addressing whether the single publication rule applies to a media report posted on the internet. However, in Nationwide Bi-Weekly Administration, Inc. v. Belo Corp., 512 F.3d 137, 141-46 (5th Cir. 2007), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals predicted The Supreme Court of Texas would apply the rule to a report published on the internet and reject "the continuous publication rule" suggested by Mayfield—that when such a report remains constantly available on the internet, each day results in a new publication. See id. at 143 (recognizing Fifth Circuit, when applying Texas law but addressing unsettled issue, is required to follow the rule it believes the Supreme Court of Texas would adopt). The Fifth Circuit based its decision on (1) the majority view among courts, and (2) the rationale behind the rule. See id. at 142-46.

With respect to the first factor, the Fifth Circuit was persuaded by the fact that every court that had decided the issue as of that date had held the single publication rule applies to information publicly available on the internet. See id. at 144 (citing, e.g., Oja v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 440 F.3d 1122, 1133 (9th Cir. 2006); Van Buskirk v. New York Times Co., 325 F.3d 87, 89 (2nd Cir. 2003); Mitan v. Davis, 243 F.Supp.2d 719, 724 (W.D. Ky. 2003); Churchill v. State, 378 N.J. Super. 471, 876 A.2d 311, 316 (2005); McCandliss v. Cox Enters., 265 Ga. App. 377, 593 S.E.2d 856, 858 (2004); Traditional Cat Ass'n, Inc. v. Gilbreath, 118 Cal.App.4th 392, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d 353, 361-62 (2004); Firth v. State, 98 N.Y.2d 365, 747 N.Y.S.2d 69, 775 N.E.2d 463, 466 (2002)).[6]

With respect to the second factor, the Fifth Circuit relied on the rationale behind the widespread acceptance of the single publication rule in the internet context, which consisted of the following considerations:

• The "functional similarities" between print and internet publications: "A statement electronically located on a server which is called up when a web page is accessed, is no different from a statement on a paper page in a book lying on a shelf which is accessed by the reader when the book is opened." Id. at 144 (quoting Mitan, 243 F.Supp.2d at 724); see also Kaufman v. Islamic Soc'y of Arlington, 291 S.W.3d 130, 140 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2009, pet. denied) (citing "functional similarities" recognized by Belo court as a factor when holding journalist author of internet article was "a member of the electronic or print media," same as one publishing through more traditional media, and thus authorized to bring interlocutory appeal from order denying summary judgment);
• More importantly, the "potential for endless retriggering of the statute of limitations, multiplicity of suits and harassment of defendants" and a corresponding chilling effect on internet communication. Belo, 512 F.3d at 145 (quoting Firth, 747 N.Y.S.2d 69, 775 N.E.2d at 466); and
• The fact that application of the rule to internet publications is consistent with the policy considerations cited by Texas courts for applying the rule to print media: to support the statute of limitation and prevent the filing of stale claims. Id. (citing Holloway, 662 S.W.2d at 691).
The Fifth Circuit further rejected arguments similar to those suggested by Mayfield in the present case. See id. at 145. Its plaintiff urged that "the publication of defamatory and private information on the web has the potential to be vastly more offensive and harmful than it might otherwise be in a more circumscribed publication." Id. The court reasoned that the concern more persons will read internet publications because they are likely accessible for a potentially indefinite period is outweighed by the competing policy interest of enforcing the statute of limitations and preventing stale claims. Id. (citing Holloway, 662 S.W.2d at 691). The court also reasoned that the concern regarding broader readership (irrespective of the temporal component) is likely relevant only to the issue of damages—not to the triggering of the statute of limitations. Id.

Although we are not bound by the Fifth Circuit's interpretation of Texas law, see Penrod Drilling Corp. v. Williams, 868 S.W.2d 294, 296 (Tex. 1993) Longview Bank & Trust Co. v. First Nat'l Bank of Azle, 750 S.W.2d 297, 300 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 1988, no pet.), or its predictions about what rule The Supreme Court of Texas likely would apply, we agree with the Fifth Circuit's reasoning and hold that the single publication rule applies to a television station's news report publicly available on the internet. Accordingly, Mayfield's libel claim for each of the two reports at issue accrued on the sole date that the report was broadcast on television and posted on the station's website. Because Mayfield filed suit more than one year after each such broadcast and internet publication, her libel claim is barred by the statute of limitations.

SOURCE: FOURTEENTH COURT OF APPEALS IN HOUSTON - No. 14-13-00268-CV – 8/21/2014 – Mayfield v. Fullhart

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