Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.
419 U.S. 245 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245 (1974)

Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.

No. 73-5520

Argued November 13, 1974

Decided December 18, 1974

419 U.S. 245


Petitioners, a mother and her son, brought a diversity action against respondents, a newspaper publisher and a reporter, for invasion of privacy based on a feature story in the newspaper discussing the impact upon petitioners' family of the death of the father in a bridge collapse. The story concededly contained a number of inaccuracies and false statements about the family. The District Judge struck the claims for punitive damages for lack of evidence of malice "within the legal definition of that term," but allowed the case to go to the jury on the "false light" theory of invasion of privacy, after instructing the jurors that liability could be imposed only if they found that the false statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth, and the jury returned a verdict for compensatory damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Judge should have directed a verdict for respondents, since his finding of no malice in striking the punitive damages claims was based on the definition of "actual malice" established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,376 U. S. 254, and thus was a determination that there was no evidence of the knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth required for liability.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the jury's verdict. Pp. 419 U. S. 251-254.

(a) The record discloses that the District Judge, when he dismissed the punitive damages claims, was not referring to the New York Times "actual malice" standard, but to the common law standard of malice that is generally required under state tort law to support an award of punitive damages, and that, in a "false light" case, would focus on the defendant's attitude toward the plaintiff's privacy, and not on the truth or falsity of the material published, and thus was not determining that petitioners had failed to introduce evidence of knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. Pp. 419 U. S. 251-252.

Page 419 U. S. 246

(b) Moreover, the evidence was sufficient to support jury findings that respondents had published knowing or reckless falsehoods about petitioners, particularly with respect to "calculated falsehoods" about petitioner mother's being present when the story was being prepared, and that respondent reporter's writing of the story was within the scope of his employment at the newspaper so as to render respondent publisher vicariously liable under respondeat superior for the knowing falsehoods in the story. Pp. 419 U. S. 252-254.

484 F.2d 150, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 419 U. S. 254.

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