Blog: Wash. court rejects crane operator’s libel suit

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Washington state appeals court has dismissed the defamation claim of a crane operator against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for revealing his criminal and drug-use history after a tragic accident.

The operator, who tested negative for drugs at the time of the accident, claimed that the article defamed him by implication by the way it juxtaposed different truthful statements to imply that his past drug use may have been in factor in the crane’s collapse.

In November 2006, Warren Yeakey was operating a large tower crane at a construction site in Bellevue, Wash., when the crane collapsed, killing a person in a nearby apartment building.

The Post-Intelligencer ran a series of articles, including one with the headline, “Operator in crane wreck has history of drug abuse.” Another headline read, “Man completed mandated rehab program after his last arrest in 2000.” That article went on to detail Yeakey’s criminal history, which included “at least six drug convictions.” The report also said the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries was investigating whether the cause of the accident was a structural failure, operator error or some combination of the two.

A few days later, Yeakey’s drug test came back negative and several months later the Department of Labor and Industries concluded the collapse was caused by flawed engineering design, not by any operator error by Yeakey. The newspaper reported these developments.

Yeakey sued the newspaper for defamation, false-light invasion of privacy, negligent infliction of emotional distress and outrageous conduct. He alleged that the newspaper falsely implied that his drug use or an error he made contributed to the collapse.

He conceded that the newspaper made no false statements. But he asserted that it committed what is known as “defamation by implication.” This type of defamation claim — not recognized in all states — provides that a party can defame someone even by making factual statements, particularly where the party refuses to report material facts, thereby creating a false impression. Another version of “defamation by implication” arises when a party juxtaposes true statements in such a way as to create a false impression.

The newspaper filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the state does not recognize a defamation by implication claim based merely on the juxtaposition of truthful statements. After a trial court refused to dismiss the lawsuit, the newspaper appealed.

In its July 7, 2010, opinion in Yeakey v. Hearst Communcations, Inc. (the parent company of the newspaper), the Washington Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit and ruled in favor of the newspaper.

The appeals court noted that “we have held that a plaintiff may not base a defamation claim on the negative implication of true statements.”

Yeakey referred to a passage in a 2005 Washington Supreme Court decision, Mohr v. Grant, where the state high court wrote: “Defamation by implication occurs where the defendant juxtaposes a series of facts so as to imply a defamatory connection between them, or creates a defamatory implication by omitting facts.” However, the Washington appeals court reasoned that the Mohr decision applied when an article omitted material facts. According to the appeals court, “Nothing in this case suggests that [the newspaper] omitted material facts in its articles.”

The appeals court concluded that Yeakey’s defamation claim must be dismissed because Washington state law does not recognize defamation by implication claims where there is no false impression created by the omission of material facts.

As Yeakey had conceded that his other claims rose or fell with his defamation claim, the appeals court said there was no need to consider them.

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