Defendant printed a false statement (which it further embellished) about plaintiff in the gossip column of its newspaper. Plaintiff brought suit for libel and slander.
If a statement is capable of carrying two meanings (one being defamatory and the other not), then it is up for a jury to determine whether the statement conveyed a defamatory meaning.
Melvin Belli (plaintiff) was a prominent attorney due to his high-profile clients, his success in obtaining large judgments for plaintiffs, and for pioneering the development of certain trial tactics. Jean Yothers was a columnist for Orlando Daily Newspapers, Incorporated (“Orlando”) (defendant). While conversing with another attorney, Yothers learned of an unflattering story concerning Belli. Per the story, Belli had been invited by the Florida Bar Association to serve as a panel member at a convention. Belli agreed with the understanding that the Association would pick up the hotel tab for himself and his wife. Belli and his wife allegedly ran up the hotel bill with clothing bills. This story, however, was false. Despite its false nature, Yothers ran the nine-year old story, with added embellishments, in her gossip column. Belli brought a defamation suit against the newspaper owner, Orlando.
Whether the publication about plaintiff was so clearly defamatory that as a matter of law the case should not have been submitted to the jury?
No. If a statement is capable of carrying two meanings (one being defamatory and the other not), then it is up for a jury to determine whether the statement conveyed a defamatory meaning. The case is reversed and remanded.
The judge and jury play critical parts in determining whether language constitutes defamation. If the meaning of a publication is so unambiguous as to bear only one interpretation, then it is for the judge to say whether the publication is defamatory or not. However, if the publication is capable of two meanings (one of which would defamatory and the other not), then it is for the jury to say in light of all the evidence. Here, the district court completely undermined the jury’s role.