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A statement otherwise protected by the doctrine of qualified privilege may lose its privileged character upon a showing of abuse, namely: (1) the communicator was primarily motivated by ill will in making the statement; (2) there was excessive publication of the defamatory statement; or (3) the statement is made without belief or grounds for belief in its truth.
Becky Chambers filed suit for defamation against her former employer, American Trans Air, Inc., and two former supervisors, Laura Knowles and John Piburn, alleging that the defendants were making defamatory statements when prospective employers called for references. The trial court granted summary judgment on the basis that there was no publication of the allegedly defamatory statements. Chambers appealed.
Could the defendants be held liable for defamation?
The court addressed the issue from the standpoint of privilege. The court discussed the concept of qualified privilege and found that such a privilege existed with regard to statements given to prospective employers concerning the former employee. The court noted that this privilege could be overcome upon a showing of abuse. The court found, however, that the former employee presented no material facts showing that either the former employer's or former supervisors' allegedly defamatory statements were primarily motivated by ill will. Thus, the court concluded that the former employee failed to show any abuse of the qualified privilege available to the former employer and former supervisors.