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Angiulo: Defamation, Opinions, and Rock n Roll

Monday, November 30, 2015

 

Thanksgiving week can be slow in the office. Justice, however, never sleeps and the Supreme Judicial Court was busy releasing opinions right up until the Wednesday before turkey day. One of their most recent cases discusses defamation and is a hot topic coming into the holidays. If you are considering suing one of your relatives over false statements of fact made around the dinner table after a few too many, perhaps you should read on.

The cases of Sholtz v. Delp and Sholtz v. Boston Herald were consolidated and released as a single opinion on November 25, 2015. The two matters were joined together because of the interrelated nature of the facts in these cases.  

The plaintiff in both cases, Donald Thomas Scholtz, was a founding member of the band Boston. In addition, both cases arose out of a series of articles in a newspaper that discussed the death of Brad Delp. Mr. Delp was known for being the lead singer of the band Boston and reporters included statements from named and unnamed sources in their articles. The lawsuits themselves revolved around various contents of those articles that the plaintiff claimed were defamatory.

Defamatory statements are false statements of fact that allows a person to sue another over words. As the Sholtz case explains, however, not just any statement will do.  

In order for a case like this to proceed to trial a legal standard must be met. Defamation has elements and they include:  a) a statement by the defendant about the plaintiff to a third party; b) that could damage the plaintiff's reputation in the community; c) the defendant must be at fault for the statement; and d) the statement must either have caused economic loss or fall into a category permitting suit without economic loss. As always, there is some nuance in this standard that will depend on the facts of the case in question.

One of the most important nuances in this matter is that statements of pure opinion are consitutionally protected. The reciprocal is also true, however, that false statements of fact are not protected at all. The question some readers may have is, “who decides whether a statement is an opinion or false statement of fact?”  Like many things in the law the answer is: “it depends.”  

Many cases will only end when either a judge or jury reaches a verdict.  This would be after trial with all the things you see in the movies.  Sometimes, a final decision comes without a trial if one or both of the parties files a motion for summary judgment.  In deciding a motion for summary judgment on a defamation suit, a judge of the trial court will look at the facts agreed to by the parties and decide if there is a legitimate question of fact to present at trial. This decision would come only after considering the various aspects of the facts including the language used, the context, and any cautionary language in the statement. 

After the trial judge's analysis is completed there are three possibilities.  If the statement is unambiguously a false statement of fact then summary judgment for the plaintiff may be granted. If the statement is, without question, pure opinion then summary judgment for the defendant would be appropriate.  If a statement cannot be reasonably decided one way or the other then the judge cannot decide the case in this way and the matter would go to trial.

In the Sholtz case, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the plaintiff and found summary judgment was appropriate in both matters. From a practical standpoint what this means is that opinions can be hurtful and might even ruin the holidays, but they won't often justify a lawsuit.  

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] 

 

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