Forest City Publishing covered Cantrell’s death in a bridge collapse accident. Five months later, they published a follow-up story riddled with inaccuracies and false statements about the depraved condition of the Cantrell family in the aftermath of the accident.
The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not preclude a plaintiff from suing a defendant for invasion of privacy under a false light theory when the defendant uses false statements in reporting on a matter of public concern.
Cantrell’s husband was killed in the horrific collapse of a large bridge. Eszterhas was assigned to cover the story, and he wrote a “news feature” on Cantrell’s funeral and the impact of his death on the rest of the Cantrell family.
Five months later, Eszterhas and Conway went to the Cantrell’s home for a follow-up feature and interviewed the Cantrell children for 60-90 minutes without Mrs. Cantrell present. The story was the lead feature of that paper’s edition and contained many statements emphasizing how poor the family had become in the aftermath of the bridge’s collapse.
Forest City Publishing concedes that the story contained many inaccuracies and false statements, most notably that Mrs. Cantrell was present at the interview though she was not and hyperbolic descriptions of the depraved nature of the home.
Cantrell and her children sued Forest City Publishing on a “false light” theory of invasion of privacy, alleging outrage, mental distress, shame, and humiliation caused by the feature.
Did the Court of Appeals err in setting aside the jury’s verdict for the Cantrell’s?
Reversed and remanded.
Yes, the Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the jury’s verdict for the Cantrell’s.
The Cantrells became newsworthy after the bridge collapse accident.
The First Amendment freedom of press should not turn on the subtle differences between common law standard of malice and the New York Times actual malice standard because news is fast-paced.
In Time, Inc. v. Hill, the New York Court of Appeals interpreted New York Civil Rights Law §§ 50-51 to permit a “newsworthy person” to sue when her name, picture, or portrait was the subject of a fictitious report or article if the report or article contained material and substantial falsification. The court held that, while the trial judge’s instructions did not confine the jury to such a finding, it was reasonable to conclude that the jury could have found the defendant to have acted with actual malice in publishing the article at hand.
Here, in contrast, the trial judge instructed the jury that liability could be imposed only if the jury found that Forest City Publishing had acted with actual malice. But because no objections were made at the time those instructions were given, the only issue at had is whether the Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the jury’s verdict.
The district judge was referring to the common law standard of malice and not the New York Times “actual malice” standard when he dismissed the punitive damages claims. Moreover, the district judge was correct in finding the evidence sufficient to support a jury finding that Eszterhas acted with actual malice (and Forest City Publishing was liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior), given the number of falsehoods and particularly the falsehood that Mrs. Cantrell was present at the interview when she was not.