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Kilian v. Doubleday & Co., Inc

    Brief Fact Summary. An article written in the first person described acts of cruelty committed by the Plaintiff, Killian (Plaintiff) an army Colonel. The events were actually witnessed by other individuals and relayed to the author. Plaintiff brought a libel action, and the Defendant, Doubleday & Co., Inc. (Defendant), answered claiming truth.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Specific charges cannot be defended through a claim of truth by a showing of Plaintiff’s general bad character.

    Facts. A book was created from the writings of disabled veterans taking an English course. One of the veterans, O’Connell, wrote a story in the first person that was actually based on stories that were described to him by other soldiers who allegedly witnessed them. The story described acts of cruelty and unauthorized punishments administered by Plaintiff. At the end of the story, Dr. Wolfe, the professor of the course, added a footnote claiming that Plaintiff was convicted of permitting cruel and unusual punishment and received a reprimand and a small fine for his crime. Plaintiff brought suit for libel and Defendant answered by claiming truth as a defense.

    Issue. Did the trial court err by submitting to the jury the question of whether the publication was substantially true?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed and a new trial awarded.
    * Plaintiff was acquitted of knowingly permitting the imposition of cruel and unusual punishments and was convicted only of permitting these punishments negligently. Defendant argued that the article is a true account of the events as observed by the author. In support of this claim, Defendant presented three witnesses that had been under Plaintiff’s command. However, the author admitted that he was never under Plaintiff’s command at Lichfield.
    * In order to support a defense of truth, it is only necessary to prove that the article was substantially true. However, a Plaintiff’s general bad character can not justify specific charges. None of the evidence was capable of proving that any of the events narrated by O’Connell actually occurred.

    Discussion. Truth is an absolute defense to charges of defamation.



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