§24.5 Defamatory Statement

The Case: McWhorter v. Barre , 132 S.W.3d 354 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).

The Basic Facts: The plaintiff, a pilot, sued the defendant, another pilot, for defamation based on a letter written by the defendant to the Federal Aviation Administration, which alleged that the plaintiff was medically unfit to be a pilot.

The Bottom Line:

  • "We next consider whether the Letter was defamatory. The question of whether the Letter was understood by its readers as defamatory is a question for the jury, but the preliminary determination of whether the Letter is 'capable of being so understood is a question of law to be determined by the court.' Memphis Publ'g Co. v. Nichols, 569 S.W.2d 412, 419 (Tenn. 1978) (emphasis in original). A trial court's conclusions of law are subject to a de novo review with no presumption of correctness. S. Constructors, Inc. v. Loudon County Bd. of Educ., 58 S.W.3d 706, 710 (Tenn. 2001)." 132 S.W.3d at 364.
  • "In making the determination of whether a communication is capable of being understood as defamatory, '[t]he courts of this state have consistently followed the prevailing common-law practice of construing the allegedly libelous words in their 'plain and natural' import.' Nichols, 569 S.W.2d at 419 n.7. In Stones River Motors, Inc. v. Mid-South Publ'g Co., Inc., this Court explained that:
    [f]or a communication to be libelous, it must constitute a serious threat to the plaintiff's reputation. A libel does not occur simply because the subject of a publication finds the publication annoying, offensive or embarrassing. The words must reasonably be construable as holding the plaintiff up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. They must carry with them an element 'of disgrace.' [W. Prosser, Law of Torts, § 111, p. 739 (4th ed. 1971)]. See also Memphis Telephone Company v. Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company, [145 F. 904 (6th Cir. 1906)] (holding that it was not libelous to state that the plaintiff was charging twice as much for its stock as the stock was worth, since it had a right to do so); and Sweeney v. Newspaper Printing Corporation, [147 S.W.2d 406 (Tenn. 1941)] (holding that it was not libelous to state that the plaintiff had opposed a job application because the applicant was a foreign-born Jew).
    Stones River Motors, Inc. v. Mid-South Publ'g Co., Inc. , 651 S.W.2d 713, 719 (Tenn Ct. App. 1983)." Id.
  • "In this case, the Letter was capable, without doubt, of being understood as defamatory. It constituted a serious threat to Plaintiff's reputation as a pilot, the only career Plaintiff has ever known. The allegations in the Letter accused Plaintiff of violating federal law and behaving in an unprofessional manner. If the allegations in the Letter were true, Plaintiff's career as a pilot was over. If false, Plaintiff's reputation as a pilot was tarnished needlessly. The Letter carried an element of disgrace because Plaintiff's reputation as a pilot will forever have a 'black mark' as a result of the Letter. The words of the Letter, taken at their "plain and natural' import' held Plaintiff up to disgrace and ridicule as a pilot and were capable of being understood as defamatory. Nichols, 569 S.W.2d at 419 n.7. The Trial Court did not err in making the determination that the Letter was capable of being understood as defamatory. We affirm on this issue." Id. at 364-65.

Other Sources of Note: Revis v. McClean, 31 S.W.3d 250 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000) (holding a statement of opinion is actionable only if it implies the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts as the basis for the opinion); Pate v. Service Merchandise Co., Inc., 959 S.W.2d 569 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1996) (holding that extrinsic facts may still be used to show the defamatory meaning of words that are not defamatory on their face).

Recent Cases: 

Patterson v. Grant-Herms, No. M2013-00287-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 5568427 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2013) (plaintiff operations agent for airline brought action against a passenger for posting allegedly defamatory statements on Twitter and Facebook; trial court granted summary judgment because statements did not rise to level of defamation, language did not hold agent up to public ridicule, and language was not highly offensive to a reasonable person; summary judgment for defamation affirmed but summary judgment for invasion of privacy claim reversed); Aegis Sciences Corp. v. Zelenik, No. M2012-00898-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 175807 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 16, 2013) (holding that political advertisement did not convey a defamatory meaning); Secured Financial Solutions, LLC v. Winer, No. M2009-00885-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 334644 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2010) (holding question can be defamatory if reasonably read as assertion of false fact).

Miller v. State , No. M2008-01241-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 837888 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 30, 2009) (affirming commissioner's ruling finding no defamation where defendant made no comment about plaintiff at all in news reports).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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