A. COMMON LAW DEFAMATION: LIBEL AND SLANDER
MELVIN M. BELLI v. ORLANDO DAILY NEWSPAPERS
389 F.2d 599 (1967)
WISDOM, Circuit Judge.
This action for damages for libel and slander is based on a false statement relating to Mr. Melvin Belli. Belli, an attorney of national prominence, is well known in the legal profession for his pioneering in the development of demonstrative evidence as a trial tactic and his success in obtaining large judgments for plaintiffs in personal injury suits. He is well known to the general public because of his representation of Jack Ruby and others in the public eye.
In March 1964 Mr. Leon Handley, an attorney in Orlando, Florida, in a conversation with Miss Jean Yothers, a columnist for the Orlando Evening Star, repeated a story he had heard concerning Belli. Handley told Yothers that the Florida Bar Association had invited Belli to serve as a member of one of the panels on the program of the Association at its 1955 Convention in Miami Beach. Belli agreed, with the understanding that ‘since there were no funds provided in the budget for payment per se for his contribution as a lawyer to the program the Florida Bar instead would pick up the hotel tab for himself and his wife during their stay.’ According to Handley, after Mr. and Mrs. Belli left Florida, the Association discovered that the Bellis ‘ran up a bunch of (clothing) bills’ which they charged to their hotel room. [FN] The derogatory portion of the story was admittedly false: the Bellis had not charged any purchases to their hotel account. Unfortunately for all, Jean Yothers reported, with embellishments, this nine-year old story in her gossip column in the Orlando Evening Star for March 19, 1964. She commented, in part: ‘* * * Oops. * * * the plan backfired on the Florida Bar * * * (Mr. Belli and ‘his well-dressed wife’ had charged) clothing bills amounting to hundreds of $s * * * to their hotel rooms. * * * The Florida Bar had been taken. * * * After all, that was the plan.’ [FN]: The entire story, as recited in the complaint, is as follows:
The article appeared in the Orlando Evening Star under the title ‘On the Town’ by Jean Yothers and headed ‘Florida Bar Got the Bill’. The full text is as follows:
Jack Ruby’s flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli of San Francisco makes an indelible impression whither he goeth.
Consider the time he and Mrs. Belli were in Miami six or so years ago and Belli was a member of a panel at a program-meeting of the Florida Bar.
Here’s what happened:
In making arrangements for Belli’s participation it had been pointed out to him that since there were no funds provided in the budget for payment per se for his contribution as a lawyer to the program, the Florida Bar instead would pick up the hotel tab for himself and his wife during their stay. Belli agreed.
A local attorney remembers, with embarrassed chagrin, how the plan backfired on the Florida Bar.