Can a defamation Plaintiff in San Diego or Los Angeles win without showing at least mere negligence by the Defendant?
A Supreme Court case says yes, a defamation plaintiff in San Diego or Los Angeles can win without showing at least mere negligence by the defendant in certain circumstances.
Although many lawyers consider it settled law, proof of negligence, as a fault requirement to establish liability in a libel case, is not always required. In purely private cases not involving a matter of public concern, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “strict liability” applies. Oft-cited lesser sources disagree, but the court’s ruling remains good law.
Strict liability means the legal responsibility for damages where the defendant was not at fault. In order to prove strict liability, the plaintiff needs to show only that the tort (e.g., libel or slander) happened and the defendant was responsible for the act. Neither good faith nor the fact that the defendant took all possible precautions is a valid defense.
In an appeal involving Dun & Bradstreet, the national corporate credit reporting agency, the Supreme Court considered company’s erroneous published report that a commercial and residential construction company filed for bankruptcy. D&B did no pre-publication verification. The disparaged company was financially sound. The defamed contractor sued for libel. As instructed by the judge, absent a showing of actual malice or negligence by D & B, the jury awarded $50,000 to compensate the plaintiff — and $300,000 in punitive damages.
The Supreme Court approved. The court noted both parties are private, and the case involved no matter of public concern (bringing higher First Amendment restrictions). The court noted some kinds of speech deserve less protection than others. The high court decided that, under these circumstances, a plaintiff can recover presumed and punitive damages from a defendant without proving actual malice — or even negligence. The negligence standard, often considered the bottom rung of the required standards of proof, is not always the floor it is commonly thought to be.