Spring 2013

Judge Dismisses "Fun Center" Defamation Lawsuit

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Cheryl A. Feeley

A Tallahassee, Fla., trial court has thrown out a defamation suit against a television station, filed by an amusement center concerning reports about a police investigation.

The lawsuit, filed by C & D MacConnell's, Inc. d/b/a "Ollie Wallie's Fun Center" against WCTV, a Gray Television station, arose out of reporting about an alleged sexual assault at the amusement center. In June 2011, an Ollie Wallie's patron reported to the Tallahassee Police Department that an employee of Ollie Wallie's had inappropriately touched her two-year-old daughter. WCTV began reporting that day on the police investigation as the station considered the story a matter of obvious concern to Tallahassee parents and other television viewers. The employee was subsequently cleared of the allegation.

The original complaint alleged that four defendants — including WCTV, a station manager, and two reporters — made defamatory statements during the course of WCTV's reporting on the June 2011 incident. Ollie Wallie's complained that the coverage portrayed management as derelict and uncooperative in the investigation and the business as unsafe. Ollie Wallie's complained that it had gone out of business as a result of the reporting.

In moving to dismiss the original complaint, the defendants argued that Ollie Wallie's had not complied with Florida's pre-suit notice statute. This notice statute requires a plaintiff alleging defamation against a media defendant to provide written notice that identifies the specific article or broadcast and the precise statements therein which he or she alleges to be false and defamatory. At the hearing on the motion to dismiss, Ollie Wallie's argued that it had complied with the statute but merely failed to include the allegation in its complaint. The court issued an order dismissing the case but permitted the plaintiff to amend.

Ollie Wallie's then filed a new complaint, which included one count of defamation and removed the station manager as a defendant. The plaintiff also attached three letters from counsel for Ollie Wallie's to a manager at WCTV— in an effort to plead compliance with the notice statute. Again, the defendants moved to dismiss the suit, arguing (1) the pre-suit notice had not, in fact, been met; (2) alleged statements that a crime occurred at a business are not defamatory as a matter of law; and (3) alleged statements that a business failed to cooperate with police or comment to reporters are also not defamatory as a matter of law.

Despite Ollie Wallie's best efforts to convince the court that it should be excused from complying with the notice statute and that the statements at issue were defamatory, the court again dismissed the suit. But this time, the court did not permit Ollie Wallie's to file an amended complaint. The court strictly applied Florida's notice statute and noted that the statute is an important component in protecting the public's interest in the free dissemination of news. Further, the court agreed with the defendants that an alleged statement that a crime occurred at a business is not defamatory as a matter of law and that an alleged statement that the business failed to cooperate or comment also is not defamatory as a matter of law.

Holland & Knight represented Gray Television station WCTV in this matter.

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