Whether a defamatory statement identifies a particular person or persons is determined by the understanding of the recipient of the statement.
Meaning of the Communication
The meaning of a communication is what the recipient understands the meaning to be. The recipient may be incorrect in that understanding, but if the incorrect interpretation is reasonable, the recipient’s understanding of the communication is taken to be the meaning of that communication. Generally, words are construed according to the meaning a recipient typically gives them. Southard v. Forbes Inc., 588 F.2d 140 (5 Cir. 1979).
Likewise, the recipient’s understanding of the communication determines to whom the communication refers. A defamatory communication must refer to the plaintiff in order for the plaintiff to have a claim, but the reference is determined by the understanding of the recipient, not the intention of the defamer.
The full context of any communication is considered when identifying the meaning of a communication and determining whether it is defamatory. Therefore, two statements could be identical, but if the context is different, one could be defamatory and other not. Hoffman v. Washington Post Co., 433 F.Supp. 600 (D.D.C. 1977). For example, the headline of a newspaper presents a different context than the newspaper article itself, because many people read only the headlines.
The circumstances during which a person is presented the communication may also affect the meaning of the communication and how the person understands it. An otherwise obviously defamatory statement made as a joke to a person or group of people may have been made in circumstances in which no reasonable person would have taken it seriously. In such a case, the statement would not be defamatory.
Elements of Group/Class Defamation
An individual member of a group may be defamed by a statement if:
- The group or class is small enough that a reader or listener can reasonably understand that the statement refers to the plaintiff; and
- The reader or listener can reasonably infer that the statement refers to the plaintiff based on the circumstances of the publication.
Although the size of the group is not defined by common law, generally plaintiffs have recovered damages when groups have included 25 or fewer people. The circumstances surrounding how the statement is presented has a significant influence on the success of such a claim. A defamatory statement alleging that “most members” of a group of 25 are guilty of bad behavior may defame the members of that group, but the same statement alleging “one member” of the group is guilty of the behavior would probably not be considered defamatory. Neiman-Marcus v. Lait, 13 F.R.D. 311 (S.D.N.Y. 1952)
Damages and Defenses of Group/Class Defamation
As in any defamatory communication claim, the plaintiff may collect actual damages or prove special damages. Defamation per se still applies, in which actual damages are assumed and need not be proven in the following situations:
- Allegations that harm a person’s trade, profession or professional standing;
- Allegations that a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease;
- Allegations that an unmarried person is unchaste;
- Allegations of criminal activity.
Defenses are consistent with any defamatory communication claim. Truth is an absolute defense. Expiration of a statute of limitations is a defense. The publisher of a defamatory statement may claim privilege if the statement was made in a court of law or involved a public figure.
The meaning of the communication—what the recipient understood it to mean—is significant when a defamation claim is tied to a group or class, because the plaintiff must be identifiable from among the members of the group. The publisher’s intention is immaterial as long as the plaintiff can prove that the communication was reasonably understood to refer to the individual members of a group small enough to be identifiable, and that the publisher was negligent in failing to anticipate such an understanding.
Defamation claims related to members of a group or class and understanding the meaning of a communication in general can be confusing. The attorneys at Minc Law can help you determine if you have a claim. Call them today at (216) 373-7706.