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Watt v. Longsdon

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    Bloomberg Law

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant showed a letter to the Plaintiff’s wife that accused the Plaintiff of several unflattering things. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant for defamation. The Defendant claimed that he was under a duty to show the Plaintiff’s wife the letter.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A speaker is privileged to make defamatory statements about another when the speaker had either a duty or an interest to publish the statements. The privilege may be lost if: (1) they go beyond the limits of the duty of interest; or, (2) they may be published with express malice, so that the occasion is not being legitimately used, but abused.

    Facts. The Plaintiff, the Defendant and Browne worked for the same oil company. Browne wrote a letter to the Defendant. Browne’s letter claimed that the Plaintiff had an unpaid liquor bill, which Browne doubted would ever get paid, that the Plaintiff’s maid was his mistress, even though she was an old woman and stone deaf, almost blind and had dyed hair, that the Plaintiff had had orgies with dancing girls, that the Plaintiff had designs on Browne’s wife, and that the Plaintiff was a blackguard, a thief, a liar and lives exclusively to satisfy his own passions and lust. Browne suggested that the chairman of the board of the company be shown the letter, but not the Plaintiff’s wife until sworn statements could be taken. The Defendant then wrote Browne a letter, which stated that the Defendant shared the same views that bribes should be paid to get sworn statements and that the Defendant would inform the Plaintiff’s wife, but not without the sworn statements in hand. A few days later b
    efore the Defendant even got a reply to his letter to Browne, the Defendant showed the letter Browne wrote to the Plaintiff’s wife. She filed for divorce. The Plaintiff sued for libel. The trial court ruled the letters privileged. The court of appeals reversed.

    Issue. Was the Defendant’s communications privileged?

    Held. No and maybe. Reversed and remanded.
    * A speaker is privileged to make defamatory statements about another when the speaker had either a duty or an interest to publish them. The privilege may be lost if: (1) they go beyond the limits of the duty of interest; or, (2) they may be published with express malice, so that the occasion is not being legitimately used, but abused.
    * The Court recognizes three occasions giving rise to a privileged communication: (1) a duty to communicate information believed to be true to a person who has a material interest in receiving the information; (2) an interest in the speaker to be protected by communicating information, if true, relevant to that interest, to a person honestly believed to have a duty to protect that interest; or, (3) a common interest in and reciprocal duty in respect of the subject matter of the communication between speaker and recipient.
    * In this case, there was a duty, both from a moral and material point of view for the Defendant to communicate the letter to the board of the company. Also, the Defendant was privileged to discuss the letter with Browne, on the ground of a common interest in the affairs of the company. These two occasions where privileged.
    * The communication to the Plaintiff’s wife stands on different footing. It is impossible to say that a defendant is never under a duty to communicate to a husband or wife information he receives as to the conduct of the other party to the marriage. Likewise, it cannot be said that it is the duty of even a friend to communicate all the gossip the friend hears at men’s clubs or women’s bridge parties to one of the spouses affected. It must depend on the circumstances of each case.
    * In this case, the Court finds that there was not a moral or social duty in the Defendant to make this communication to the Plaintiff’s wife as to make the occasion privileged. There must be a new trial so far as it relates to the claim for publication of a libel to the Plaintiff’s wife. There should also be a new trial as to malice defeating the privilege in the Defendant’s other two communications.
    Concurrence. (L.J. Greer) In my judgment, no right-minded man in the position of the Defendant would have thought it right to communicate the horrible accusations contained in Browne’s letter.

    Discussion. In this case, the Court was able to find a clear duty in the Defendant to communicate the letter within the company. The Defendant would need to communicate the letter in order to find out its effect on the company’s affairs. If however, the Defendant communicated these statements within the company to Browne and the board with malice, then the privilege is lost and the Defendant is liable for defamation. Whether or not the Defendant had a duty, either social or moral, to communicate the contents of the letter to the Plaintiff’s wife is for the lower court to decide. If there was no duty, then the communication is not privileged and the Defendant is liable to the Plaintiff for the communication and its damage. If the communication to the wife is determined to be privileged, then it must determined whether or not the privilege was lost because of malice.


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