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Kennedy v. Cannon

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiff, Kennedy (Plaintiff), accused the Defendant, Cannon’s (Defendant), client of rape. The Defendant made a statement to the local paper in defense of his client. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant for defamation.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An absolute immunity extends to the judge as well as to witnesses and parties to the litigation, for defamatory statements uttered in the course of a trial or contained in pleadings, affidavits, depositions, and other documents directly related to the case.

    Facts. The Defendant was a lawyer for Charles Humphrey (Humphrey), an African-American man who was accused of raping a white woman. Humphrey claimed that the woman had consented to the intercourse. The Defendant spoke to the editor of the local paper and gave his client’s side of the story. The prosecution had already published its side of the events. The Defendant’s side of the story was printed in an article. As a result of the article, the Plaintiff suffered humiliation and harassment. She was eventually forced to move out of the state. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant claiming that the article charged her with adultery and was slanderous per se. The Defendant admitted to the court that the article had correctly quoted his statements. The Defendant claimed he needed to make the statements to tell his client’s side of the story in order to prevent a lynching of his client. At the conclusion of his testimony, the trial court granted the Defendant’s motion for a directed verdict. The
    trial court held that when the State published damaging statements about his client, the Defendant was privileged to reply. The Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Were the Defendant’s statements to the local paper privileged?

    Held. No. Reversed and remanded on the question of mitigation of damages.
    * Attorneys are privileged and protected to a certain extent, at least, for defamatory words spoken in a judicial proceeding, and words thus spoken are not actionable, which would in themselves be action, if spoken elsewhere.
    * An absolute immunity extends to the judge as well as to witnesses and parties to the litigation, for defamatory statements uttered in the course of a trial or contained in pleadings, affidavits, depositions, and other documents directly related to the case. An absolute privilege is distinguished from a qualified privilege in that the former provides immunity regardless of the speaker’s conduct, while the latter is conditioned upon the absence of malice and is forfeited if it is abused.
    * In this case, the Defendant will not be liable for defamation if the words were spoken in a judicial proceeding. The Court holds that the words spoken to the local paper by the Defendant were not part of or connected to a judicial proceeding. Thus there was no privilege.
    * The scope of the privilege is restricted to communications such as those made between an attorney and his client, or in the examination of a witness by counsel, or in statements made by counsel to the court or jury. An attorney who wishes to litigate his case is the press will do so at his own risk. The Defendant had no absolute privilege in regard to the statement made by him to the newspaper.
    * The Defendant indeed had a duty to act upon the information he had gained as to the statement given by the State’s Attorney to the local paper, particularly in light of Humphrey’s fear of a lynching. However, the Defendant’s means that he chose to fulfill that duty were not proper. The Defendant could have sought to have the objectionable matter kept out of publication. He could have requested a change of venue. However, his legal duty in no way justified the publication of his defamatory reply statement.
    * The Defendant had neither an absolute nor a qualified privilege in regard to the defamatory statement.

    Discussion. This holding provides the rule for an absolute privilege. In this case, the Defendant did not have an absolute privilege because his statement was outside of the privilege. Had he spoken the words in court, he would not be liable for defamation. An absolute privilege is required at trial, because, in realty, the system expects witnesses and parties to be defamed.


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