Monday, July 19, 2010

Defamation by Implication a No-Go, Says Wash. Appeals Court

SEATTLE - MARCH 16:  The cover of the last eve...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
In  Warren Yeakey v. Hearst Communications, Inc. et al. (Case No. 39263-1-II), the Washington Court of Appeals this month rejected a plaintiff's claim of defamation by implication, holding that the media defendant did not create a false impression by omitting material facts from its substantially true reporting about the plaintiff's criminal history of drug abuse.

The now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on a tragic accident in November 2006, in which a construction crane operated by Yeakey collapsed, killing a tenant in a nearby apartment building. A series of P-I stories about the incident included the following headlines: "Operator in crane wreck has history of drug abuse" and "Man completed mandated rehab program after his last arrest in 2000," and noted in one story that Yeakey had a criminal record of at least six drug-related convictions.

A state probe concluded that the accident was caused by a structural defect, not an operator error, which the P-I reported.  Exonerated, Yeakey then sued for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, outrageous conduct, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Though conceding the P-I stories did not contain any false statements about him, the plaintiff alleged defamation by implication, asserting the newspaper's juxtaposition of true statements created the false impression that he was to blame for the tenant's death.

Writing for the court, Judge Lisa Worswick ruled "a plaintiff may not base a defamation claim on the negative implication of true statements."

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