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Law School Case Brief

Cantrell v. Forest City Pub. Co. - 419 U.S. 245


Under traditional doctrines of respondeat superior, a publishing company could be held vicariously liable for the damage caused by the knowing falsehoods contained in its writer's story.


Petitioners (a mother and her minor children) alleged that an article published by respondents (a newspaper publisher and a writer and a photographer who worked for the publisher) in the newspaper unreasonably placed them in a false light before the public. Petitioners challenged a judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed a verdict in their favor in their action against respondents.


Did the Court of Appeals err in setting aside the jury’s verdict on an invasion of privacy claim in which the defendant was a newspaper publisher?




The sole question for the Court's determination was whether the appellate court erred in setting aside the jury's verdict. After reviewing the trial record, the Court concluded that the district judge was referring to the common-law standard of malice rather than to the New York Times "actual malice" standard when he dismissed the punitive damages claims. In a false-light case, common-law malice -- frequently expressed in terms of either personal ill will toward the plaintiff or reckless or wanton disregard of the plaintiff's rights -- would focus on the defendant's attitude toward the plaintiff's privacy, not toward the truth or falsity of the material published. Reversing, the Court determined that the only way to harmonize two virtually simultaneous rulings by the district judge was to conclude, contrary to the decision of the appellate court, that in dismissing the punitive damages claims he was not determining that petitioners had failed to introduce any evidence of knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. The appellate court concluded that there was no evidence that the publishing company had knowledge of any of the inaccuracies contained in the article. However, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that the writer produced article within the scope of his employment and that the publishing company was therefore liable under traditional doctrines of respondeat superior. The Court reversed the judgment of the appellate court and the case was remanded to that court with directions to enter a judgment affirming the judgment of the district court as to the publishing company and writer.

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