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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Georgia Appellate Court: Summary Judgment Appropriate in Defamation Lawsuit Against Savannah Paper

The Georgia Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court decision granting summary judgment in favor of the Savannah Morning News (Morris Publishing Group), which had been sued for defamation by William Torrance. Mr. Torrance alleged that in a series of articles published in the paper, the defendants had defamed him by printing that "(1) by stating that he was “let go” as city manager of Eastman, Georgia; (2) by reporting allegations that he was involved in drug use while in Eastman; (3) by implying that he was responsible for the death of Henry Dickerson, the man found dead in the city attorney's pool; (4) by reporting that he was involved in the wiretapping of a GBI agent's telephone calls and subsequent efforts to remove her from the Dickerson investigation; (5) by reporting various statements concerning the Dickerson investigation that placed Torrance in a false light; and (6) by reporting that Torrance's daughter's window was nailed shut...".

According to the appellate court, "The trial court entered a very comprehensive order dealing with many issues, including venue, Torrance's status as a public official, actual malice, and a point-by-point analysis of the allegedly defamatory statements. In his sole enumeration of error, Torrance contends the trial court erred in granting the newspaper defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The focus of Torrance's appeal is on the content of the statements and the question of actual malice; he acknowledges that he is not appealing the determination that he was a public figure at the time of the statements."

Because the standard is one of actual malice, the plaintiff had an extremely high standard to meet. "Torrance cannot show actual malice merely by making assertions contrary to those of the identified sources from which the newspaper defendants obtained their information. “[T]he press need not accept denials, however vehement; such denials are so commonplace in the world of polemical charge and countercharge that, in themselves, they hardly alert the conscientious reporter to the likelihood of error....Moreover, the newspaper defendants did not conceal this information, but published Torrance's denials and other contradictory evidence in the articles themselves. This is in contrast to such decisions as Lake Park Post, Inc. v. Farmer, 264 Ga. App. 299, (2) (590 SE2d 254)...in which we found actual malice because the defendants not only failed to investigate but also refused to print any contradictory evidence regarding the event reported in their news articles, although all other evidence contradicted their version, including eyewitnesses, multiple official reports, and a police patrol car video. See also Harte-Hanks, supra, 491 U.S. at 692 (refusal to listen to conclusive tape recording despite multiple witnesses’ denials of reporter's version of events showed “purposeful avoidance of the truth” and evidence of actual malice.) Here, while Torrance argues that malice is shown because the series “presented a distorted interpretation” of the facts, errors of fact caused by negligence or by adoption of one of a number of possible interpretations do not show actual malice....Even a total failure to investigate does not establish bad faith, and failure to investigate fully or to the degree desired by the plaintiff “does not evince actionable reckless disregard.” Brewer v. Rogers, 211 Ga. App. 343, 348 (2) (c) (439 SE2d 77)...And “unsupported inferences or conjecture regarding a defendant's motivation do not suffice to show malice.”

...

Finally, Torrance contends that a jury issue was created with respect to actual malice because Torrance testified at his deposition that one of the reporters was “hostile and agitated” while interviewing him and told him that he ought to be in prison. As the trial court noted, three witnesses contradicted Torrance's account of this interview. But, as the trial court also observed, even if we assume Torrance's assertion to be true, as we must on summary judgment, “‘[a]ctual malice’ in a constitutional sense is not mere spite or ill will; it must be actual knowledge that a statement is false or reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. [Cit.]” Sparks v. Peaster, 260 Ga. App. 232, 237 (2) (581 SE2d 579) (2003). “[I]mposing liability on the basis of the defendant's hatred, spite, ill will, or desire to injure is clearly impermissible.” (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Bollea v. World Championship Wrestling, 271 Ga. App. 555, 558 (1) (610 SE2d 92)...Under these circumstances, Torrance has failed to meet his heavy burden to show actual knowledge or reckless disregard of truth or falsity, and the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of the newspaper defendants."

The case is Torrance v. Morris Publishing Group, 2007 WL 4277847 (Ga.App.), 36 Med. L. Rptr 1033 (2007).

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