The Florida Supreme Court rejected false light as a legal cause of action, killing an $18.3 million award against the Pensacola News Journal and limiting a lawsuit over an online story by Jews for Jesus.
People who believe they were cast in a bad light in otherwise accurate reports lost an avenue to challenge publishers under a pair of decisions in cases closely monitored by news media groups.
"We conclude that false light is largely duplicative of existing torts but without the attendant protections of the First Amendment," Justice Barbara Pariente, who wrote both opinions, said for the 4-1 majority in Jews for Jesus v. Edith Rapp.
In that case, Rapp, a devout Jewish woman, sued over an online story written by her stepson claiming she had denounced her religion. The court erased a decision by Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach that would have allowed the woman to sue for false light but gave the lower court the leeway to re-examine Rapp's defamation claim.
Pariente, who majored in communications in college, said the rejection of false light was driven by the fear it could chill free speech rights. Although defamation and false light have similarities, defamation has built-in protections upholding freedom of expression.
Protections include lowering damages when a retraction is published and when statements were published in good faith. In addition, truth is an absolute defense against defamation.
"Without these protections that have slowly developed over the years, recognizing false light could persuade plaintiffs to circumvent these safeguards in order to ensure recovery even though the same conduct could equally be remedied under defamation law," Pariente wrote.
In its opinion, the court noted the option of claiming defamation by implication, which covers true statements that leave a false impression, and set a community standard for weighing alleged defamatory statements.
The Supreme Court said communication is defamatory if it prejudices a plaintiff in the eyes of a "substantial and respectable minority of the community."
In the other case, contractor Joe Anderson appealed after the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee overturned the $18.3 million jury award he won against the Pensacola newspaper for an article that he argued may have left readers with the impression he murdered his wife. The newspaper said he "shot and killed" his wife shortly after dismissing their divorce petition and mentioned later that it was a hunting accident.
The appellate court concluded Anderson dressed up his libel claim as a false light suit after missing the two-year statute of limitations for libel suits. Unspecified torts are subject to a four-year statute of limitations.
All five justices in Anderson v. Gannett said the Rapp case made moot the question of which statute of limitation applied to false light, which was treated as an invasion of privacy claim. The court concluded false light never existed in Florida as a valid claim, even though it acknowledged it previously mentioned false light in opinions when reciting citations about privacy torts in general.
Anderson's attorney, Bruce Rogow of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he was disappointed by the decision.
"Basically what they said was, 'While we have said there's false light in Florida, we didn't really mean it,'" he said. If false light was an "established cause of action, they couldn't retroactively take it away."
Mathew Staver, the attorney for Jews for Jesus, called the ruling a "landmark decision."
"False light invasion of privacy was like Damocles' sword hanging over the neck of a publisher," said Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel in Orlando. "That tort was a significant threat to freedom of speech."
Rapp's attorney, Barry Silver, was happy with the decision even though it wiped out the only claim that survived the 4th DCA. He said the remand on defamation would allow Rapp to have her day in court.
"I am thrilled with the decision of the Supreme Court that permits a claim to go forward when an organization that is based on fraud intentionally lies about someone to embarrass them," said Silver, a Boca Raton, Fla., solo practitioner. "How they decided to label that remedy is of no consequence to me or my client or the people of Florida."
Staver contended even with the defamation claim potentially back in play, his client will prevail. He said Rapp's stepson asking the Jews for Jesus community to pray for Rapp was not damaging to her character. He doubts that very few people in the community -- even a substantial minority of a community -- would have seen the Internet newsletter.
Gannett's attorney did not return a call for comment by deadline.
In a partial dissent in the Rapp case, Justice Charles T. Wells said the majority articulated a defamation standard that was too vague -- namely that something seen as prejudicial by a minority of the community was defamatory.
"There is no way to know how many it takes to constitute a 'substantial' number or what constitutes a 'respectable minority,'" Wells wrote. "What does 'respectable' mean in this context?"
Pariente noted the court could alleviate the risks of false light torts by extending defamation safeguards to false light actions. But she said this was a job for the Legislature, which has looked at it but not acted.
In reaching the decision, the court reviewed case law from around the country but was unable to find a single case where a judgment based solely on a false light accusation was upheld. Pariente said that finding demonstrated "the absence of false light does not create any significant void in the law."
The two cases were argued in March. News media filed friend-of-the-court briefs expressing concerns that a false light tort would make it more difficult to accurately report the news. False light was designed to compensate a plaintiff for injury to their feelings or emotional distress, whereas defamation covers damage to reputations. False light is defined as being offensive to a reasonable person, whereas defamation is an injury to reputation in the community.
Tampa, Fla., attorney Gregg Thomas, a partner at Thomas & LoCicero who represented news media as amicus, said a ruling in favor of false light would have been a "disaster."
"Factual accuracy is the hallmark of what journalists strive to do and, if they would have permitted the false light tort to go forward, there's no way to do prepublication review," he said.
The tort is recognized in states including Tennessee and Ohio, Thomas said.
"The very fact that false light is defined in subjective terms is one of the main causes for concern because the type of conduct prohibited is difficult to define," Pariente wrote. "False light and its subjective standard create a moving target whose definition depends on the specific locale in which the conduct occurs or the particular sensitivities of the day."
New Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston did not participate in the decisions.