Florida Court Reverses $18 Million Jury Verdict for False Light
In a much anticipated decision, a Florida appellate court has reversed an $18 million dollar jury award against a newspaper based on a claim of false light invasion of privacy. In Gannett Co., Inc., Multimedia Holdings Corp. d/b/a The Pensacola News-Journal and Multimedia, Inc. v. Joe Anderson, Jr., the Florida First District Court of Appeal ruled that false light invasion of privacy claims must be filed within the same two-year statute of limitations that applies to defamation actions. Because the plaintiff had filed his claim more than two years after the publication, the lawsuit was time-barred, the appeals court held.
While it disagreed with the trial court’s ruling that had applied a four-year statute of limitations to the false light claim, the appeals court nonetheless certified the case as being in conflict with a decision of another Florida appeals court, which means the Florida Supreme Court must now decide whether to review the ruling and clarify this area of the law.
The case arose out of a December 14, 1998, Pensacola News Journal article that ran under the headline, “Contractor Puts Squeeze On State,” with the subheadline, “Company Pursues Political Clout.” The article reported on grand jury investigations and other matters, exploring whether a state paving contractor, Anderson Columbia, Inc., had a pattern of benefiting from campaign contributions and political connections. Part of the article discussed the fact that Joe Anderson, Jr., the company’s founder, had been indicted in 1983 on bribery charges, plead guilty to mail fraud and been sentenced to extended probation. The article reported:
In 1988, while still on probation and before his conviction was reversed, Anderson shot and killed his wife, Ira Anderson, with a 12-gauge shotgun.
The death occurred in Dixie County just north of Suwannee where days before the shooting Joe Anderson had filed for divorce but then had the case dismissed.
Law enforcement officials determined the shooting was a hunting accident.
A federal judge ruled that by having the shotgun, Anderson violated his probation, and the judge added two years to Anderson’s probation.
Following this passage, the article addressed other matters regarding Anderson Columbia’s perceived political clout, and concluded by listing the company’s political contributions and favors it had received.
Joe Anderson, Jr., claimed that the article falsely implied he had murdered his wife and gotten away with it, even though all of the facts stated in the article were true. His first complaint sought damages for libel and tortious interference with a business relationship. He filed the complaint on March 21, 2001, more than two years after the December 1998 publication date. The trial court threw out the claim for libel under the two-year statute of limitations for that type of claim. Anderson amended his complaint, however, to restate the claim as one for invasion of privacy based on the false light theory. The case proceeded to trial in December 2003, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Anderson for $18.28 million dollars in compensatory damages.
On appeal, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal concluded that Anderson’s false light claim was no different from an action for libel, and was thus subject to the two-year statute that applies to defamation actions. The court also expressed doubts about the existence of a cause of action for invasion of privacy based on a false light theory. After reviewing a number of Florida Supreme Court decisions, the court wrote:
We conclude from all of these decisions that, although the [Florida] Supreme Court has recognized the potential existence of a cause of action for invasion of privacy based on a false light theory, it has never had occasion to decide whether such a cause of action actually exist in Florida.
The First District Court of Appeal expressly disagreed with another appellate district’s decision in a 2001 case against CBS Broadcasting Co. There, the court expressly held that because Florida’s libel statute of limitations does not explicitly say that it covers false light, and because false light is a branch of the invasion of privacy tort and not libel, Florida’s catchall four year statute of limitations applied to a false light claim.
In the Pensacola News Journal case, one judge concurred in the result but sharply disagreed with the majority’s finding that false light claims generally fall under the two-year statute of limitations. Instead, the concurring judge wrote that he agreed with the CBS Broadcasting decision from the other district, and that false light claims should be subject to the four-year limitations period. He agreed with the majority on the decision to reverse the jury verdict, however, because, in his view, the plaintiff merely recast his claim as false light to avoid the libel statute of limitations after the trial judge threw out the libel claim.