In a 1964 decision, the Supreme Court established that truth is an absolute defense against defamation. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). However, for parties involved in defamation suits, it is similarly important to know about the affirmative defense of substantial truth.
In a recent case, a Texas Court of Appeals found in favor of defendants who had posted a critical review of the plaintiff’s product online. David Rafes, Inc. v. Huml, 2009 Tex. App. (1st Dist. Oct. 29, 2009). In the suit, David Rafes alleged that Michael Huml and Slowboy Racing, Inc. published defamatory statements about Rafes’ business, Turbochargers.com. The allegedly defamatory statements included Huml claiming that Rafe’s turbocharger was a “poorly manufactured turbo from China” that would “inevitably fail in a short amount of time” and that it was a “Chinese version us[ing] an inferior stainless in its composition.” Id. at 2. Among several defenses asserted by the defendants was that their statements were substantially true.
In order to bring a cause of action for defamation, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant:
- published a statement about the plaintiff
- that was defamatory
- while acting with either actual intent or reckless disregard, i.e. malice (if the plaintiff was a public official or public figure) or negligence (if the plaintiff was a private individual) regarding the truth of the statement
Id. at 13.
Generally, a defendant can defeat a libel claim by establishing that the published statement on which the action for libel is based is a true statement. Additionally, a defendant can defeat a libel claim by establishing that the statement at issue is substantially true. The Court explained that in order “[t]o determine if a publication is substantially true, we consider
- whether the alleged defamatory statement was more damaging to plaintiff’s reputation, in the mind of the average person,
- than a truthful statement would have been, and
- [w]e look at the ‘gist’ of the publication to determine whether it is substantially true.”
Id. at 14.
The substantial truth standard has also been referred to as the “gist” test because, under this approach, only the “gist” of the statement in question must be true in order for the statement to be protected. As the Court explained, “[t]he defense of truth does not require proof that the alleged defamatory statement is literally true in every detail; substantial truth is sufficient.” Id. This doctrine protects certain false statements so long as any inaccuracies do not materially alter the dissemination of otherwise truthful speech.
The Huml Court decided in favor of the defendants, finding that the trial court had heard sufficient evidence to conclude that the plaintiff’s turbocharger was, as it concluded, a “bad product” and that the evidence “substantiat[ed] the ‘gist’ of the statements contained in the internet article regarding the production and manufacturing of the turbocharger.” Id.
The substantial truth defense is significant in that it provides defendants with a less stringent – and potentially less expensive – way to combat a libel suit. If a defendant can show that the statement at issue is substantially true, it will hopefully be possible under the right circumstances for the defendant to have a motion for summary judgment granted (which will allow the case to be disposed of without going to trial). The doctrine is also important for libel plaintiffs because it notifies them that statements that criticize them need not be entirely true in order to be protected.
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