Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff sued his employer for defamation after a warning letter alleged that Plaintiff opened company mail in violation of company policy. Plaintiff denied the accusations. Plaintiff claimed that his reputation and character was tarnished due to this warning letter being sent out to company employees.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A person seeking to recover for libel does not need to prove special damages; instead, the person may recover for any injury of which the libel legally caused.
William Agriss (Plaintiff), a truck driver and union steward, sued his employer Roadway Express (Defendant) for defamation after a warning letter from the company alleged that Plaintiff opened company mail in violation of company policy. Almost a year after the letter was sent out, Plaintiff received questions and comments from employees and union officials. Plaintiff claimed the allegations were false. However, word spread throughout the company. As a result, Plaintiff’s general character of integrity and honesty was questioned. The letter that accused Plaintiff of opening company mail was also sent out to three managers and to a union representative. At trial, Plaintiff claimed that he was not aware of the company sending out warnings for opening company mail. He also claimed that the accusation was more meaningful to company employees than a regular individual because it tarnished his character and reputation. The trial court did not find the charge of opening company mail as defamatory on its face; thus, it did not warrant imposing liability for libel per se. The trial court required Plaintiff to allege special damages with specificity. After Plaintiff failed to prove special damages, the trial court dismissed the complaint. Subsequently, Plaintiff appealed.
Does a person seeking to recover for libel need to prove special damages under Pennsylvania law?
No. A person seeking to recover libel does not need to prove special damages under Pennsylvania law. Instead, the person may recover for any injury of which the libel legally caused, including injury to the person’s reputation. In this case, a libel claim of injury to one’s reputation should not require proof of economic loss. When a defendant has made false and defamatory statements regarding a person’s reputation, the person should be able to recover for the injury to his or her reputation. Once damage to a person’s reputation is proven, a person in a libel case has proven his or her entitlement to recover damages. Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment is reversed and remanded.
The trial court’s decision was based on its reliance on the terms “libel per se” and libel per quod.” The term “per se” has been problematic for Pennsylvania courts because the term has attached different meanings: “per se” means one thing when attached to cases of slander, but means another thing when attached to cases of libel. In slander cases, the term “per se” required a plaintiff to prove special harm. After many exceptions to the rule were carved out, proof of special harm was no longer a requirement. Subsequently, the terms “per se” and “per quod” were used as pleading devices: whether a slander suit required proof of special harm depended on whether the slander case was “per se” or “per quod.” In libel cases, the terms were also used to distinguish libel cases because libel “per se” cases did not require extrinsic evidence to prove defamation while libel “per quod” did require extrinsic evidence. In this case, the trial court applied the libel “per quod” rule and found that Plaintiff failed to prove special harm. However, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania believed the traditional rule that all libels are actionable “per se” regardless of special harm was more appropriate for libel cases.