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Summary judgment can be appropriate in libel cases. Whether a publication is deemed libelous per se is a question of law to be decided by the court. Defamatory words to be libelous per se must be susceptible of but one meaning and of such nature that the court can presume as a matter of law that they tend to disgrace and degrade the party or hold him up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or cause him to be shunned and avoided. Libel per se is a publication which, when considered alone without explanatory circumstances: (1) charges that a person has committed an infamous crime; (2) charges a person with having an infectious disease; (3) tends to impeach a person in that person's trade or profession; or (4) otherwise tends to subject one to ridicule, contempt or disgrace.
Plaintiff litigant had been involved in litigation with her former husband for nearly 30 years when defendant Sarah Avery became interested in the protracted litigation and wrote an article about it. The published article included references to the parties’ marriage, financial status, and ongoing and past litigation. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging libel per se, invasion of privacy, fraud and misrepresentation, slander of title, and obstruction of justice. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant. Plaintiff appealed.
Under the circumstances, could the defendant be held liable for libel per se, invasion of privacy, fraud and misrepresentation, slander of title, and obstruction of justice, thereby rendering the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant a mistake?
The court affirmed the decision of the trial court, holding that the article was not libelous per se because the statements complained of were not susceptible of only one defamatory meaning as a matter of law. The plaintiff litigant could only have claimed an invasion of privacy claim for intrusion, and the defendant writer's use of public records did not constitute intrusion. Moreover, the court held that the slander of title claim failed because the statement that title to the property was held in trust for the litigant's children was true and there were no damages shown. There was no fraud or misrepresentation because, by her own admission, the plaintiff litigant did not rely on any statements made by defendants. There had been no trespass where the litigant engaged in "social" conversation with the writer and did not ask her to leave. There was no obstruction of justice because the litigant presented no evidence that her case was in some way judicially obstructed by defendants.