Header graphic for print
Tilting the Scales Business Issues with a Legal Slant

Defamation Primer

Posted in Legal Risk Management

Johnny Tightlips, a local mobster, is facing time behind bars for various racketeering offenses. During the trial, the New York Daily Planet reported that Tightlips was a “key lieutenant” of Jimmy “The Squid” Calamari, an organized crime figure, and that Tightlips planned to reduce his jail time by cooperating with prosecutors to testify against The Squid. Attacking the article, Tightlips sued the Daily Planet complaining that he was defamed and that the information intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him and his family. Why? Tightlips was not upset that the Daily Planet called him a “key lieutenant” or even an organized crime figure. He frets that he was defamed because reporting his cooperation with prosecutors, exposed Tightlips as a snitch or “mob rat.” The result? He claims the newspaper report will subject him to threats, scorn and ridicule among the prison population and his peers. Can a mobster be defamed by being called a rat?

What a twist! An alleged mobster complains that a newspaper article reporting his snitching is damaging to his reputation in the criminal community! Ultimately for Tightlips however, his suit is without merit. Even if a statement tends to prejudice Tightlips in the eyes of his mobster cohorts (e.g. the prison population) that, alone, is not enough to make the statements defamatory when the “affected group” is one whose standards are so anti-social the courts should ignore their “standards” as being against public policy. A statement is defamatory only if it subjects an individual to shame in the minds of “right-thinking people.” The population of “right-thinking people” unambiguously excludes those who reject someone who legitimately cooperates with law enforcement.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

“Defamation” is a frequent topic of cocktail conversation. Yet, it is complicated in its application. Generally speaking the act of injuring a person’s reputation by making a false statement by libel (in writing) or slander (orally) can be the subject of a lawsuit. As Tightlips discovered, it is more than just getting your feelings hurt or being scorned by your “friends.” Should you find yourself a defendant in a defamation lawsuit, urge your attorney to review your insurance policies. Frequently a comprehensive general liability policy (“CGL”), commercial or personal, can provide some coverage. Many CGL policies provide indemnification and defense costs for defamation claims also known as “advertising injuries.”

Yes. There really is a mobster who claimed to be defamed when it was reported that he was cooperating with prosecutors. Check it out at Michtavi v. New York Daily News et al., No. 08-2111-cv (2nd Cir. 2009).