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Ogden v. Ass'n of United States Army - 177 F. Supp. 498 (D.D.C. 1959)

Rule:

The modern American law of libel has adopted the so-called "single publication" rule for libel actions, that the publication of a book, periodical, or newspaper containing defamatory matter gives rise to but one cause of action for libel, which accrues at the time of the original publication, and that the statute of limitations runs from that date. Therefore, this principle must be deemed a part of the common law of the District of Columbia. It is no longer the law that every sale or delivery of a copy of a publication creates a new cause of action. 

Facts:

The defendant pursuant to a contract with the United States published a book in 1954 entitled, 'Combat Actions in Korea'. This work contained some adverse criticisms on the handling of a platoon which it was said the plaintiff commanded during one of the engagements in Korea. It is charged by the plaintiff that these aspersions are defamatory and this action for libel was brought in respect to them.

The common law was originally to the effect that every sale or delivery of a copy of libelous matter was a new publication and that, therefore, a new cause of action accrued on each occasion. This basic principle is formulated in the classic treatise of Odgers on Libel and Slander, p. 160, as follows:

So again every sale or delivery of a written or printed copy of a libel is a fresh publication; and every person who sells or gives away a written or printed copy of a libel may be made a defendant, unless, indeed, he can satisfy the jury that he was ignorant of the contents.'

Issue:

Did the plaintiff's cause of action accrue on the date of the original publication of the book?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The modern American law of libel has adopted the so-called 'single publication' rule; and, therefore, this principle must be deemed a part of the common law of the District of Columbia. In other words, it is the prevailing American doctrine that the publication of a book, periodical, or newspaper containing defamatory matter gives rise to but one cause of action for libel, which accrues at the time of the original publication, and that the statute of limitations runs from that date. It is no longer the law that every sale or delivery of a copy of the publication creates a new cause of action.

The American rule is supported not only by the great weight of authority, but is also far more suited to contemporary life. To permit a separate suit to be brought in regard to the sale or delivery of every single copy of a modern publication would be inconceivable and intolerable.

In view of these considerations, the plaintiff's cause of action must be deemed to have accrued on the date of the original publication of the book in question and, therefore, is barred by the statute of limitations.

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