Friday, May 29, 2015

Defamation Cause of Action in Texas (Houston Court of Appeals 2015)

To prove a cause of action for defamation, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant published a statement of fact about the plaintiff; (2) the statement was defamatory; (3) the statement was false; (4) the defendant acted negligently in publishing the false and defamatory statement; and (5) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result. See WFAA–TV, Inc. v. McLemore, 978 S.W.2d 568, 571 (Tex. 1998); Brown v. Swett & Crawford of Texas, Inc., 178 S.W.3d 373, 382 (Tex.
App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, no pet.). Whether a communication is defamatory is a question of law. See Musser v. Smith Protective Servs., 723 S.W.2d 653, 654 (Tex. 1987).

For a statement to be actionable as defamation, it must refer to an ascertainable person. Robertson v. Sw. Bell Yellow Pages, Inc., 190 S.W.3d 899, 902 (Tex. App.— Dallas 2006, no pet.); Double Diamond, Inc. v. Van Tyne, 109 S.W.3d 848, 854 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2003, no pet.). The statement must “point to the plaintiff and to no one else.” Newspapers, Inc. v. Matthews, 339 S.W.2d 890, 894 (1960).

See Ledig v. Duke Energy Corp., 193 S.W.3d 167, 180 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.) (noting person is referred to in defamatory statement if person is named in statement or if those who know person would understand that statement was referring to person).

Defamatory statements are conditionally or qualifiedly privileged and therefore not actionable when “made in good faith on any subject matter in which the author has an interest, or with reference to which he has a duty to perform to another person having a corresponding interest or duty.” TRT Dev. Co.-KC v. Meyers, 15 S.W.3d 281, 286 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2000, no pet.) (quotation omitted).

A conditional or qualified privilege arises out of the circumstances in which the allegedly false statement is published in a lawful manner for a lawful purpose. See Minyard Food Stores, Inc. v. Goodman, 50 S.W.3d 131, 139–40 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2001), rev’d in part on other grounds, 80 S.W.3d 573 (Tex. 2002). This privilege applies to bona fide statements made in good faith under circumstances where the author believes that the public has an important interest in a particular subject matter requiring publication, or where the author believes that a person having a common interest in a particular subject matter is entitled to know the information. See Randall’s Food Mkts., Inc. v. Johnson, 891 S.W.2d 640, 646 (Tex. 1995).

However, proof that a statement was motivated by actual malice existing at the time of publication defeats the privilege. Id.; Marathon Oil Co. v. Salazar, 682 S.W.2d 624, 631 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1984, writ ref’d n.r.e.). In the defamation context, a statement is made with actual malice when the statement is made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard as to its truth. See Hagler v. Proctor & Gamble Mfg. Co., 884 S.W.2d 771 (Tex. 1994). To invoke the privilege on summary judgment, an employer must conclusively establish that the allegedly defamatory statement was made with an absence of malice. See Jackson v. Cheatwood, 445 S.W.2d 513, 514 (Tex. 1969); Goodman v. Gallerano, 695 S.W.2d 286, 287–88 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1985, no writ). A defendant can negate actual malice by presenting evidence that shows it did not publish the alleged defamatory statement with actual knowledge of any falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Casso v. Brand, 776 S.W.2d 551, 559 (Tex. 1989).

SOURCE: HOUSTON COURT OF APPEALS - NO. 01-13-01065-CV - 3/17/2015  

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