According to Florida case law as of the date of this article, a claim of defamation requires five elements: (1) publication; (2) falsity; (3) actor must act with knowledge or reckless disregard as to the falsity on a matter concerning a public official, or at least negligently on a matter concerning a private person; (4) actual damages; and (5) statement must be defamatory. However, the inquiry does not end there:
“A claim of defamation requires “the following five elements: (1) publication; (2) falsity; (3) actor must act with knowledge or reckless disregard as to the falsity on a matter concerning a public official, or at least negligently on a matter concerning a private person; (4) actual damages; and (5) statement must be defamatory.” Jews For Jesus, Inc. v. Rapp, 997 So.2d 1098, 1106 (Fla. 2008).
Clearly, a false statement about another is a required element of defamation. Cape Publ’n, Inc. v. Reakes, 840 So.2d 277, 279-80 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003). However, “falsity only exists if the publication is substantially and materially false, not just if it is technically false.” Smith v. Cuban Am. Nat’l Found., 731 So.2d 702, 707 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999).
“Under the substantial truth doctrine, a statement does not have to be perfectly accurate if the ‘gist’ or the ‘sting’ of the statement is true.” Id. at 706. “The question of falsity, the [Supreme] Court held, ‘overlooks minor inaccuracies and concentrates upon substantial truth.’ ” Id. at 707 (quoting Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496, 516, 111 S.Ct. 2419, 115 L.Ed.2d 447 (1991) ). Furthermore, in determining whether a statement is “substantially true,” the statement in question must be read in full context of its publication. Id. at 705-06.
“Where a communication is ambiguous and reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning, it is for the trier of fact to decide whether the communication was understood in the defamatory sense.” *660 Perry v. Cosgrove, 464 So.2d 664, 666 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985); see also Pep Boys, 711 So.2d at 1328 (“The questions of whether the broadcast contained false statements and/or statements that could be interpreted as false are questions of fact which should be left for a jury to determine where the communication is ambiguous and is reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning.”).
In this case, the court appears to have relied on both the substantial truth doctrine and qualified privilege in disposing of the defamation claim. First addressing the substantial truth doctrine, the court noted that it had already determined that Mr. Kieffer “misappropriated some of the Organization’s funds.” It concluded without discussion that the “sting” of the allegedly defamatory statements derived from the statement that Mr. Kieffer misappropriated AOF funds, not from specific amounts allegedly taken. And it noted that under the substantial truth doctrine, “statements are not to be held to the exact facts or to the most minute details of the transactions published.”
Next, the court discussed qualified privilege. Despite noting that Appellees chose not to argue qualified privilege as a basis for summary judgment, the court determined that “the allegedly defamatory statements fall under the ambit referred to as a ‘qualified business privilege’ ” and that the Appellees’ “actions were taken with good motive.”
The trial court’s order relies heavily on qualified privilege, a defense that was not asserted or argued as a basis for summary judgment. In fact, counsel for Appellees expressly stated that he was not relying on qualified privilege because that would bring motive into the analysis. Instead, Appellees relied solely on the argument that the statements regarding misappropriation of funds were substantially true.”
Related (From Alan’s injury blog):
- Defamation Cases Where Plaintiffs Were Victorious
- Defamation of Character Claims
- Defenses to Defamation Lawsuits
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