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Mims v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Mims (Plaintiff) sued Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (Defendant) for libel over a letter that Defendant sent to Senator Sparkman. Plaintiff claims that the publication element of a libel claim was met because Defendant’s president dictated the contents of the letter to a corporation stenographer and because the letter was sent to Senator Sparkman.

     

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    1) When the defendant is a corporation, the writing in question in a libel action is not published where one corporate employee dictates the contents to another corporate employee who then transcribes it. 2) A writing is not published, for purposes of a libel action, when the third party who reads it is acting as Plaintiff’s agent.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff was employed by Defendant for 32 years. He did not contribute to a political campaign fund and was terminated shortly thereafter. Plaintiff believed his termination was a result of his failure to contribute, so he contacted his friend, Senator Sparkman of Alabama, and asked him to inquire of Defendant as to why Plaintiff had been fired. Defendant’s president responded to Senator Sparkman with a lengthy letter detailing Plaintiff’s failings as an employee and denying that the termination was related to the political campaign fund. Defendant’s president had dictated the contents of the letter to a corporate stenographer, who had transcribed and mailed the letter. Plaintiff brought suit for libel in federal court, asserting that the contents of the letter were false and made with malice. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant, and Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    1) When the defendant in a libel action is a corporation, is the writing in question considered published because one corporate employee dictated its contents to another who transcribed it? 2) Is a writing in question in a libel action published when the third party who reads it is acting as Plaintiff’s agent?

    Held.

    (Strum, J.) 1) No. When the defendant is a corporation, the writing in question in a libel action is not published where one corporate employee dictates the contents to another corporate employee who then transcribes it. A corporation acts through its employees. When the president dictated the letter to the stenographer, who transcribed it, the two employees were engaged in a single corporate action. The two were not acting as two individuals, but as two instrumentalities of the single corporation. Therefore, the dictation of the letter to the stenographer is not sufficient publication to support a libel action. Affirmed as to this issue.

     

    2) No. writing is not published, for purposes of a libel action, when the third party who reads it is acting as Plaintiff’s agent. Senator Sparkman was acting as Plaintiff’s agent when he solicited the letter from Defendant at Plaintiff’s request and with Plaintiff’s approval. Defendant responded to the person through whom the inquiry was made. By soliciting the letter through Senator Sparkman, Plaintiff impliedly consented to a reply though the same agent. Therefore, there was insufficient publication to a third person to support a libel action. Without publication, Plaintiff’s claims of falsity and malice are not reached. Affirmed as to this issue.

    Affirmed.

    Dissent.

    (Rives, J.) The letter was published both at inception and at reception. Although the president and stenographer both work for the corporation, they remain individual human beings as well. The fact that a corporation works through human agents should not shield it from tort liability. Under New York law, publication results from dictation when the stenographer transcribes the writing. Although the New York case involved a stenographer hired by an individual instead of two corporate employees, the opinion did not state that it rested on this distinction. Further, Senator Sparkman was not acting as Plaintiff’s agent, but was acting in his capacity as a government official. His request to Defendant was in order to allow Defendant to explain its actions before referring the matter to the Senate Elections Subcommittee. The matter should have gone to the jury to determine whether Senator Sparkman was Plaintiff’s agent.

    Discussion.

    Although the court in this case found that the act of one corporate employee dictating the contents of the letter to a stenographer for transcription was not publication, this holding has not been extended to include conversations with other corporate employees not involved in the preparing of the writing. In cases where a corporate defendant communicated libelous statements to employees who were not producing the writing, this conversation has been sufficient to meet the publication requirement. Kennedy v. James Butler, 156 N.E. 666 (N.Y. 1927) and Pirre v. Printing Developments, Inc., 468 F. Supp. 1028, 1044 (S.D.N.Y. 1979). This approach has also been adopted in the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1977) § 577.


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