The Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected how CNN and other medial companies demanded the special dismissal provision found in Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute in a defamation case. The loss of this important appeal will – at the minimum – make it easier to file suit against the media in federal court particularly in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. CNN is headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.
The Underlying Case
The appeal to the Eleventh Circuit is the result of several reports on Anderson Cooper 360 in June 2015 on the infant mortality rate for open-heart surgery at St. Mary’s Medical Center – a West Palm Beach, FL hospital. The show claimed St. Mary’s death rates were three times the national average. The reporting sparked defamation lawsuits from the former chief executive at the hospital who was forced to resign as a result of CNN’s report. The executive claimed that CNN made an unfair comparison of hospitals that conduct both open-heart and closed-heart surgeries which, had it been properly made, would have adjusted for risk and changed the death rates.
CNN argued that the plaintiff could not meet the “of and concerning” standard required by a defamation suit because executive was not mentioned by name in the series. CNN also argued an “academic” disagreement that the methodology of how to calculate the mortality rates is a non-actionable opinion. These arguments, however, were placed on the back burner as a result of the standard that the Georgia federal judge must decide whether or not the case should be dismissed. Like other states, Georgia has tried to reduce frivolous First Amendment lawsuits by passing an anti-SLAPP statute. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Under the statute, the plaintiff bears a higher evidentiary burden above and beyond those imposed by the federal rules of civil procedure. Accordingly, the 11th Circuit held the SLAPP statute should not apply. Notably, other federal circuits around the country – including the First, Second, Fifth, and Ninth – have ruled that state SLAPP laws should apply in federal courts.
Defamation of character is a term that encompasses any statement that hurts another’s reputation. When this happens in writing, it is referred to as “libel”; when it occurs in verbal form, it is referred to as “slander.” While defamation is not a crime, it is a civil wrong – or a tort. An individual who has been defamed has a private right of action to sue the person (or entity) who did the defaming for monetary damages.
Nevada’s law that governs defamation tries to balance two competing interests: People should be able to speak freely without fear of litigation over each mistake, insult, or disagreement, while a person’s life should not be ruined by lies that are told about them. While defamation is governed by state law, and varies from state to state, a victim of defamation must establish that the statement was published, is false, was injurious, and is unprivileged in order to succeed in a defamation lawsuit. Because the public has the right to criticize them, public officials have less protection from defamation. In addition to proving the four elements previously mentioned, a public official must also prove the defendant acted wit