$18 Million Verdict Tossed as Court Blocks Effort to Avoid Libel Defense

Two years ago we wrote about efforts by plaintiffs’ attorneys to evade First Amendment defenses that are available in defamation claims by suing the defendant for some other kind of tort and about the importance of having the right insurance policy in place to help pay for a defense against those kinds of claims. An $18.28 million decision out of Florida last week provided a good example of the evasion concept, but this time the plaintiff was trying to avoid libel’s short statute of limitations.

The plaintiff was on probation for a mail fraud conviction when he killed his wife in what was determined to be a hunting accident. A Pensacola newspaper wrote a number of articles about him and at least one story included an account of the accident. The plaintiff initially sued for libel and alleged the story falsely implied that he had murdered his wife. But he had filed suit more than two years after the article was published and the statute of limitations for libel in Florida was two years.

So the plaintiff began focusing his claim on a false light invasion of privacy theory, which he asserted fell under the four-year statute of limitations for general torts. That effort was rejected by Florida’s First District Court of Appeal which tossed the jury’s verdict and ordered a judgment for the defendants. The court’s opinion includes a good discussion of the similarities and differences between libel and false light, and it addresses the issues involved in extending libel-type protections to false light lawsuits.

Read our article about insurance policy considerations in case such as these, and read more about the Florida case at Appeal Reverses $18 Million Verdict Against Fla. Newspaper in Insurance Journal. To read more about false light invasion of privacy and about a hunting party’s startling response to this hunting accident (page 4), see the court’s opinion .