“Liar Liar Pants On Fire!” Public Figure Has Higher Burden In Defamation Action (NY).

In Farber v. Jefferys, plaintiff published multiple articles in nationally distributed magazines on the controversial debate on whether HIV causes AIDS, and won a journalism award on the issue.  Defendant made numerous statements on an Internet site regarding misstatements and misrepresentations in plaintiff’s articles, and used the term “liar” in reference to plaintiff’s work.  The court held that plaintiff was a limited public figure because she voluntarily injected herself into the debate.  As such, she was subject to the heightened standard of proving defendant acted with actual malice or gross irresponsibility.  Defendant provided documentation to support that his statements about plaintiff’s journalism was based on his research, articles signed by plaintiff’s critiques, and various studies plaintiff wrote about.  As such, the court concluded that defendant did not act with actual malice or gross irresponsibility, notwithstanding plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant was biased against her.  In addition, the court found that the word “liar” was not actionable because the broad context of the statement and surrounding circumstances lead to the conclusion that what was being read was “likely to be opinion, not fact.”  Accordingly, the First Department, affirmed the trial court’s pre-discovery dismissal of the case.

In analyzing defamation claims, one must focus on the allegedly defamed party, statements made and their context to ascertain the opposing party’s burden of proof in establishing their claim.  If the appropriate burden cannot be met, a pre-discovery motion to dismiss may be viable.

For more information about this case, please contact Cheryl Fuchs at cfuchs@wcmlaw.com