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Absent exceptional circumstances, the mere allegation that a plaintiff knows a criminal is not defamatory as a matter of law.
Defendants, publisher and author, published a book which included a chapter depicting a criminal episode. Plaintiff crime victims objected to the description of the crime and a passage which stated that the murder victim came to their house to inquire about a junkie. Plaintiffs sued defendants, seeking the award of compensatory and punitive damages based respectively on libel and invasion of privacy by being cast in a false light; they also claimed that their privacy had been invaded through the unreasonable publication of private facts. Defendants filed motions for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the action. The trial court granted the motion. Plaintiffs appealed.
By indicating that the murder victim came to the suspect’s house to inquire about a junkie, did the defendant publisher and author defame the name of the victims and invade their privacy?
The court held that a reasonable and fair interpretation of the statement was not that one of plaintiffs had engaged in any illegal drug-related activity but merely that she knew a junkie. The court also noted that in its contextual setting, the statement was not invested with any defamatory meaning. Because the statement could not reasonably be construed to accuse plaintiffs of illegal drug use, the court found it was not highly offensive to a reasonable person and did not cast plaintiffs in a false light. Because the information published was contained in official court records, the court held that plaintiffs' privacy was not invaded by an unreasonable publication of private facts. Additionally, the court found that the crime was newsworthy and a matter of legitimate public concern which was not abated by the passage of time. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment affirming the dismissal of plaintiff's claims.