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LegalSpeak: Libel Proof Plaintiff Case—Davis v. The Tennessean (Tenn.App. 2001)

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Chapter Personal Injury Law

This case involved a plaintiff who was convicted of murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison for his participation in an armed robbery. However, the plaintiff was not the triggerman in the armed robbery. A prominent newspaper inaccurately printed that the plaintiff was the triggerman. The man then sued the newspaper for libel. The Court explained:

However, “the basis for an action for defamation, whether it be slander or libel, is that the defamation has resulted in an injury to the person’s character and reputation.” To be actionable, the allegedly defamatory statement must “constitute a serious threat to the plaintiff’s reputation.” Damages from false or inaccurate statements cannot be presumed; actual damage must be sustained and proved.

It is from these general principles establishing that the gravamen of a libel claim is injury to reputation that the concept of “libel proof” parties has arisen. This doctrine essentially holds that “a notorious person is without a’good name’ and therefore may not recover for injury to it.” Robert D. Sack, Sack on Defamation: Libel, Slander and Related Problems, 35 (Cum.Supp.1998).

If the purpose of defamation law is to guard against harm to reputation, a person without reputation has nothing for the law of defamation to protect. Whether for this reason, or because courts wish to rid their dockets of and spare defendants from nuisance suits by people with nothing legitimate to gain from such litigation, some courts have held that there are persons so notorious that they have no reputation on which to base a defamation claim. Their suits are necessarily frivolous. They are said to be “libel-proof.”.

Although Mr. Davis alleges he suffered unjustified humiliation because of the publication, he does not allege his public reputation has been injured. We conclude he cannot show such injury because, at the time of the publication, he was serving a ninety-nine year sentence for aiding and abetting the murder which is the subject of the article and his complaint. He participated in the crime which resulted in the murder. His character reputation with the public was established and could not be harmed by inaccurate attribution to him of conduct which was part of the crime in which he participated. His continued incarceration for a long time after the publication renders actual damage, with regard to his standing in the community, as a result of the article unlikely.

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