Tenn. inmate’s wife can pursue libel, false-light lawsuit

Thursday, August 4, 2011

An inmate’s wife, who was shown visiting her husband in a Tennessee prison on a TV program examining how drugs are smuggled into prisons, can proceed with her claims for defamation and false-light invasion of privacy, a federal judge has ruled.

Marlorita Battle visited her husband, Charles E. Battle II, at Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution on Aug. 30, 2009. Without her knowledge and consent, Wild Eyes Productions filmed her and the couple’s child in the visiting room with her husband. The footage was edited and aired by A&E Television Networks on the episode “Conspiracy” for the series “Squad: Prison Police.”

The episode featured Tennessee Department of Correction Special Agent John Fisher saying that a woman may have conspired to bring drugs to her husband in prison. The show then features Marlorita Battle’s face. As she gets up to go to the bathroom, the agent says: “Hold on now, she’s going to the bathroom. Typically, these women hide stuff up their vaginal cavity and then go to the restroom to take it out. Now we are starting to get to the nitty gritty.”

Later, the program did reveal the following written statement: “a strip-search of the suspect did not reveal any smuggled drugs.” The “suspect” was Charles Battle.

Battle sued A&E and Wild Eyes Productions in January 2011 in federal district court. She alleged that the airing of the program defamed her, invaded her privacy by placing her in a false light and constituted an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In her complaint, she alleged that the program contained false allegations that she was smuggling drugs and placed her in false light by implying that she was involved in such activities. “Defendants knew at the multiple times this episode aired that their allegations and statements against Plaintiff were not true,” the lawsuit states.

The defendants did not file an answer to the complaint, but instead filed a motion to dismiss. They argued that the program did not constitute defamation or false-light invasion of privacy because the program was not capable of having a defamatory meaning. The defendants pointed out that the show did conclude that no drugs were found on Charles Battle.

On July 27, U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp refused to dismiss the defamation and privacy claims in Battle v. A&E Television Networks.

Sharp reasoned that the overall tenor of the program could convey the impression to viewers and potential jurors that Battle was involved in smuggling drugs to her husband in prison. “Even though the Program indicates that a search of Plaintiff revealed no drugs, a jury could conclude from the overall way that the Program is presented that Plaintiff was a drug smuggler who just happened to not get caught on September 12, 2009,” Sharp wrote.

Attorneys for A&E also argued that the program was substantially true and based on mere opinion, not assertions of fact. Sharp reasoned that it was too early in the case to decide whether the substantial-truth doctrine insulated the defendants. He also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court and Tennessee courts have said opinions can form the basis of defamation claims if they imply assertions of objective fact. “Thus, even if Agent Fisher’s various statements are said to be mere opinions, the Court is not in any position to determine whether such opinions are erroneous, incorrect or incomplete.”

Sharp also emphasized that the program was “highly edited” as opposed to an example of “live reporting.” He said this fact could be important in determining whether the defendants published a false statement with reckless disregard for the truth.

Sharp did dismiss the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, finding that the defendants’ actions did not rise to the level of “beyond all bounds of decency” — a required element of such a claim.

“Judge Sharp made a correct decision,” said Allen Woods, Battle’s Nashville-based attorney. “A review of the episode reveals that a jury could easily determine that they were trying to defame my client and place her in a false light.”

“This was a disturbing episode,” Woods added. “What was most disturbing was the suggestion that my client went to the bathroom to pull drugs from her body cavity. They had to know that the real reason she went to the bathroom was because her baby’s pacifier had dropped on the floor and she went into the bathroom to wash it off.”

However, Robb Harvey, the Nashville-based attorney representing A&E, disagreed: “We respectfully disagree with the district judge’s ruling and are weighing our options.”

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