Law School Case Brief
Smith v. Durden - 2012-NMSC-010, 276 P.3d 943
N.M. R. Ann. 13-1001 defines the tort of defamation as a wrongful injury to a person's reputation. N.M. R. Ann. 13-1002 then sets forth the prima facie defamation case. One of the nine elements which must be established as part of the prima facie case is that the communication caused actual injury to the plaintiff's reputation. N.M. R. Ann. 13-1002(B)(8). A use note explains that the requirement that plaintiff prove that the defamatory communication caused actual injury to plaintiff's reputation is imposed because New Mexico no longer allows presumed damages in defamation actions.
Plaintiff, a priest, initiated a defamation action after the publication of a packet of documents which, among other things, alluded to alleged sexual misconduct involving plaintiff and minor parishioners. Defendants, vestry members and members of the parish, moved for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff failed to establish a cause of action for defamation because he was unable to demonstrate that he had suffered any actual injury to his reputation as a result of the publication of the material by its distribution. Plaintiff responded that falsely accusing a religious leader of pedophilia was always defamatory and that personal humiliation and mental anguish, as defined in the damages instruction for defamation claims in N.M. R. Ann. 13-1010, qualified as the requisite actual injury. The district court granted defendants' motion, but the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed the district court.
Does New Mexico require a showing of injury to one's reputation to establish liability for defamation?
Under N.M. R. Ann. 13-1002(B)(8), New Mexico law now required a showing of actual injury to one's reputation to establish liability for defamation. It no longer allowed presumed damages in defamation actions. his accurately reflects the fact that, because actual injury to reputation can no longer be presumed, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that the communication caused actual injury to reputation as part of the prima facie case. Thus, plaintiff's failure to produce evidence of actual injury to reputation precluded his defamation claim as a matter of law. The supreme court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
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