Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co.

171 N.Y. 538, 64 N.E. 442 (1902)



It is the intention of the court to decide no case but the one before it. If, as sometimes happens, broader statements are made by way of argument or otherwise than are essential to the decision of the questions presented, they are the dicta of the writer of the opinion and not the decision of the court. A judicial opinion, like evidence, is only binding so far as it is relevant, and when it wanders from the point at issue it no longer has force as an official utterance.


Franklin Mills Co., one of the defendants, was engaged in a general milling business and in the manufacture and sale of flour. They circulated about 25,000 lithographic prints, photographs and likenesses of plaintiff Abigail M. Roberson without her consent. Theses prints have been conspicuously posted and displayed in public places. These likenesses were recognized by friends of the plaintiff. As a result the plaintiff had been greatly humiliated by the scoffs and jeers of persons who have recognized her face and picture on this advertisement and her good name has been attacked, causing her great distress and suffering both in body and mind. She also claimed to have become ill as a result. Plaintiff then sought the aid of the courts to enjoin a further circulation of the lithographic prints containing her portrait, and as an incident thereto, to reimburse her for her illness and the damages to her feelings.


Does the complaint herein state a cause of action in equity against the defendants or either of them?




The judgment was reversed and the questions certified answered in the negative and with leave to plaintiff to serve an amended complaint within 20 days. There was no precedent for such an action, and if such a principle were incorporated through a court of equity, the attempts to logically apply the principle would necessarily result in a vast amount of litigation, and in litigation bordering upon the absurd. The right of privacy could not be confined to the restraint of the publication of a likeness but must necessarily embrace as well the publication of a word-picture, a comment upon one's looks, conduct, domestic relations, or habits. Justice in a given case could be worked out according to the notions of right that governed the judge or judges comprising the court. However, the mischief that would result would be incalculable under a system that made a decision in one case a precedent for decisions in all future cases that were akin to it in the essential facts. As there was no allegation of libel in the complaint, the absence of such an allegation was fatal to the maintenance of an action for libel.

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