Ohio high court recognizes false-light claim

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Individuals suffering from publicity that casts them in a false light may sue for invasion of privacy, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled.

In a 5-2 decision in Welling v. Weinfeld, the court for the first time declared that false light is “a viable, and we believe necessary, action for relief apart from defamation.”

Lauri Weinfeld sued neighbors Robert and Katherine Welling in 2000. Weinfeld owned a party center next to her home, and the Wellings lived next door to the party center. Weinfeld alleged that the Wellings’ use of yard equipment during her parties interfered with her business relations and caused emotional distress. The Wellings countersued alleging invasion of privacy. The Wellings alleged that a handbill created by Weinfeld seeking information about her recently vandalized property publicized false information about them and placed them in a false light.

The fliers said, “Reward for any information which leads to the conviction of the person(s) responsible for throwing a rock through the window of Lakeside Center Banquet Hall (also known as the ‘Party Center’) in the Dee Mar Allotment, in Perry Township, on Monday, May 8th or Tuesday, May 9th, 2000. Any tips will be kept confidential. Call the Perry Township Police Department’s Detective Bureau at 478-5121.”

Weinfeld distributed the fliers at the Pepsi bottling plant that employed Robert Welling and his son as well as at the schools attended by the couple’s other children.

Even though the fliers contained no reference to the Wellings, the court ruled that the chosen locations of where they were distributed caused them to be considered negative publicity about the family.

“In Ohio, one who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy,” Judge Paul E. Pfeifer wrote for the majority in the June 6 ruling.

Because of the potential chilling effect that future false-light lawsuits could have on speech, especially that of the news media, the court instilled a stringent test for claims. The court wrote that a plaintiff asserting false light must show that the publicity would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and that the defendant “acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.” The court emphasized that actual malice must be present for a false-light claim to stand, addressing potential concerns from the news media.

“It is undoubtedly true that misrepresentations putting plaintiffs in a false light but not amounting to libel or slander are more difficult for an editor to notice and prevent. … Negligent reporters and editors who merely fail to observe an error or to use reasonable care in averting misrepresentations will be protected,” the court stated.

The case now returns to a lower court to determine if Weinfeld invaded the Wellings’ privacy.

Courtney Holliday is a junior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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