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§42.5 Discovery Rule in Defamation Cases

The Case: Leedom v. Bell , No. 03A01-9704-CV-00136, 1997 WL 671918 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 1997).

The Basic Facts: The plaintiff and his wife sued a psychologist and his ex-wife for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, outrageous conduct, and violation of the plaintiff's constitutional right to his familial relationship with his daughter alleging that the defendants issues false accusations that the plaintiff had sexually abused his daughter. The libel claim was based on a letter sent to the Knox County Department of Human Services, which contained negative statements about the plaintiff's character. "Dr. Bell argues that since the letter was sent on February 12, 1993 and the plaintiffs filed suit on February 15, 1994, their libel action is barred by the one year statute of limitations found at T.C.A. § 28-3-104." 1997 WL 671918 at *6. The plaintiff argues that he did not discover the existence or contents of the letter until at least February 22, 1993 and therefore his action is not time-barred on the basis of the "discovery rule."

The Bottom Line:

  • "The precise issue of whether the discovery rule should be adopted in matters involving libelous documents, which unlike books or magazine articles, are not accessible to the general public, has not been addressed in Tennessee. In Quality Auto Parts Co., Inc. v. Bluff City Buick Co., Inc., 876 S.W.2d 818 (Tenn. 1994), the Supreme Court declined to apply the discovery rule in slander cases. The Quality Auto Parts court carefully limited its holding to slander actions, noting that 'historically, … a distinction has been drawn between the two types of defamation.' Id. at 820. Additionally, the language of the libel limitations statute, which provides that an action must be brought 'within one (1) year after [the] cause of action accrued,' [Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104], is significantly different from the more specific slander limitations statute, which mandates the bringing of an action 'within six (6) months after the words are uttered.' [Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-103]." 1997 WL 671918 at *6.
  • "The Supreme Court has stated that 'the public policy of our state is opposed to requiring that suit be filed when circumstances totally beyond the control of the injured party make it impossible for him to bring suit.' Teeters, 518 S.W.2d at 517. This policy is grounded upon a recognition of the unfairness of 'requiring that [a plaintiff] sue to vindicate a non-existent wrong, at a time when the injury is unknown and unknowable.' Id. at 515. In deciding whether to apply the discovery rule to cases such as the one at bar, we must weigh these considerations against the policy reasons underlying the development of statutes of limitations, described by the Quality Auto Parts court as:
    To ensure fairness to the defendant by preventing undue delay in bringing suits on claims, and by preserving evidence so that facts are not obscured by the lapse of time or the defective memory or death of a witness.
    Quality Auto Parts , 876 S.W.2d at 820." Id. at *6-*7.
  • "There is a decided modern trend in American jurisprudence to apply the discovery rule in those limited situations where the allegedly libelous statement occurred in private or confidential publications which are not readily available to the plaintiff or the general public. Those states which have directly addressed this issue have generally adopted the discovery rule in such cases." Id. at *7 (citations omitted).
  • "After careful consideration of the facts and equities of the present case, and the various policies underlying statutes of limitations and the discovery rule, we find ourselves in agreement with the following statement by the Mississippi Supreme Court on this issue:
    We are convinced that the general policies underlying this statute of limitations will not be thwarted by adoption of the discovery rule in that limited class of libel cases which, because of the secretive or inherently undiscoverable nature of the publication the plaintiff did not know, or with reasonable diligence could not have discovered, that he had been defamed. In such rare instances, we do not believe that a plaintiff can be accused of sleeping on his rights.
    Staheli , 548 S.W.2d at 1303." Id.
  • "In the present case, Leedom could not have discovered the existence of the allegedly libelous letter until the juvenile court hearing on February 22, 1993. By operation of the discovery rule, his cause of action for libel accrued on that date. Since Leedom filed his complaint less than one year after accrual, his claim is not time-barred." Id.

Other Sources of Note: Quality Auto Parts Co., Inc. v. Bluff City Buick Co., Inc. , 876 S.W.2d 818, 821-822 (holding that the discovery rule does not apply to toll the statute of limitations for slander).

Recent Cases: Daniel v. Taylor , No. E2008-01248-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 774428 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 25, 2009) (affirming dismissal of slander and false light invasion of privacy claims finding statute of limitations expired and discovery rule did not apply).

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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.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.dayontortsbook.com. John also blogs regularly on key issues for tort lawyers. To subscribe to the Day on Torts blog, visit www.dayontorts.com.

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