TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Newspapers, other entities and individuals cannot be sued in Florida for making misleading statements just because they are embarrassing or distressing, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
That cause of action, known as "false light," doesn't exist in Florida, the justices said in two cases.
The opinion in Anderson v. Gannett Co. overturned an $18 million false-light verdict against the Pensacola News Journal, which had been accused of implying that a road builder murdered his wife. An article stated he "shot and killed" her but two sentences later added that authorities called the death a hunting accident.
"It was not only a great victory for the News Journal and Gannett (the newspaper's parent company) but really for all the media and the state of Florida," said News Journal Publisher Kevin Doyle. "It's a landmark decision for us."
In the other case, Jews For Jesus, Inc. v. Rapp, Edith Rapp, the stepmother of a Jews for Jesus member, accused that organization of casting her in a false light. Her stepson wrote an article for the organization's Internet newsletter that allegedly implied Rapp, who is Jewish, had joined Jews for Jesus or agreed with its tenets or philosophy.
False light is a cause of action that falls under privacy laws and is intended to protect a person's mental or emotional well-being. It is similar to defamation, which includes libel and slander. A key difference is that a defendant can win a defamation case by showing a statement is true even though it is hurtful.
The Jews for Jesus case has not gone to trial. The state Supreme Court upheld an appeals court decision to dismiss the false light claim in that case and ruled that its decision also applied to the News Journal case though it had been tried by a jury.
Both were 5-0 decisions. The two newest justices did not participate.
A number of other states have recognized false light but no such judgment has ever been upheld by an appeals court, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court.
Bruce Rogow, a lawyer for Joe Anderson Jr., who sued the News Journal, said he was disappointed but not surprised.
"False light was always a strange cause of action," Rogow said. "What closed the door on us is a situation in which a paper can print something literally true in a way that's harmful."
Rogow's client founded the Lake City-based Anderson Columbia Co. He sued over a 1998 article about the company that referred to the shooting, which occurred several years earlier.
"The court shut the courthouse door to every Floridian who is falsely accused by a newspaper when they publish words that are literally true but carefully crafted to included thinly veiled accusations of wrongful conduct," Anderson said in a statement.
He said the story "reopened old wounds and forced me to relive the darkest days of my life, more than 10 years later."
The ruling goes well beyond the mainstream media, said Jews for Jesus lawyer Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based religious freedom organization.
"It reaches any person or group that publishes in print or on the Internet or through television or radio," Staver said. "This is a broad decision that covers anyone that publishes in any manner, in any format."
Rapp, of Delray Beach, will have another day in court.
The Supreme Court, by a 4-1 vote, ordered an appeals court to reconsider a defamation claim it had rejected in Rapp's case, using the standard of whether her reputation had been damaged in the eyes of "a substantial and respectable minority of the community."
Rapp's lawyer, Barry Silver, had argued she was a victim of false light, defamation or both.
"We don't particularly care what it's called," Silver said. "We're ecstatic about it. It clearly was defamatory."
Bruce Rapp wrote in the newsletter that his stepmother agreed to "receive" Jesus.
Silver said the newsletter "flat-out intentionally lied" and his client was defamed in the eyes of "virtually the entire Jewish people."
Staver said the defamation claim was "frivolous" because the article was true and did not harm Edith Rapp's reputation.