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Law School Case Brief

Tavoulareas v. Piro - 260 U.S. App. D.C. 39, 817 F.2d 762 (1987)

Rule:

A public official can recover damages for libel only by showing that the allegedly defamatory statement is made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. This constitutional protection has been applied to speech concerning public figures who are not government officials, but who nonetheless often play an influential role in ordering society. The court declined to extend the actual malice rule to speech about private individuals.

Facts:

William Tavoulareas and his son Peter brought suit for injury to reputation after The Washington Post published a story that said, among other things, that Tavoulareas had used his influence as president of Mobil Corporation to “set up” Peter as a partner in a shipping firm whose business included a multi-million dollar management services contract with Mobil. After a jury trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the judge awarded judgment notwithstanding the verdict to the Post defendants. The court then vacated a divided panel’s decision to reinstate the verdict for a hearing en banc.

Issue:

Could a major newspaper be held liable for libel for publishing a story about a president of a multinational oil company?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reaffirmed the lower court's decision to set aside the jury verdict holding that father was a limited purpose public figure. The facts showed that the corporate president thrusted himself and his company to the forefront on an issue of national concern and controversy, that he played a substantial role in spearheading a public counterattack on the movement for reform of the oil industry, and that the publication was not wholly unrelated to the public controversy. Evidence did not constitute clear and convincing evidence of actual malice where father testified and was personally involved in the establishment and success of his son's business. The Court also held that no reasonable jury could have found the allegations of a "set-up" false where the article information was corroborated. An adversarial stance was not indicative of actual malice where the reporter conducted a detailed investigation and wrote a story that was substantially true.

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