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Liberman v. Gelstein - 80 N.Y.2d 429, 590 N.Y.S.2d 857, 605 N.E.2d 344 (1992)

Rule:

The four established exceptions to the rule that slander is not actionable unless the plaintiff suffers special damage consist of statements: (1) charging plaintiff with a serious crime; (2) that tend to injure another in his or her trade, business or profession; (3) that plaintiff has a loathsome disease; or (4) imputing unchastity to a woman. 

Facts:

Plaintiff Barnet L. Liberman was the landlord of an apartment building. Defendant Leonard Gelstein was a tenant in the building and was on the board of governors of the tenants' association. Disputes between the landlord and tenants arose from a proposed rent increase. Liberman filed a defamation action against Gelstein in New York state court arising from statements by Gelstein (1) to another tenant intimating that Liberman had bribed a police officer, and; (2) to a building employee, Robert Kohler, that Liberman verbally abused and threatened to harm Gelstein and his family. Liberman claimed $ 5 million damages on each cause of action for injury to his reputation and emotional distress. Gelstein filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The appellate division affirmed that judgment on Liberman's appeal. Liberman appealed.

Issue:

(a) Did Liberman's slander complaint  state a viable claim? (b) Was the alleged slander protected by qualified privilege?

Answer:

(a) No (b) Yes

Conclusion:

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the appellate court's judgment, holding that Gelstein was properly granted summary judgment. (a) The court noted that slander as a rule was not actionable unless the plaintiff suffered special damage. The court held that the threat statements allegedly made by Gelstein were not slanderous per se. Because Liberman did not prove special damages caused by the statements, that claim was properly dismissed. (b) As to the alleged bribery statement, the court ruled that there was malice in the statement because it was not a public announcement. However, the court held that Gelstein had a qualified privilege in making the statement because it was a communication made by him to another person on a subject in which both had an interest. Gelstein and Kohler were members of the governing body. If Liberman was in fact bribing the police so that his cars could occupy spaces in front of the building, that would be inimical to those interests. Thus, Gelstein had a qualified right to communicate his suspicions—though defamatory of Liberman—to Kohler.

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