196 So.2d 255 (La. 1967), 48184, Thompson v. St. Amant

Docket Nº:48184.
Citation:196 So.2d 255, 250 La. 405
Party Name:Herman A. THOMPSON v. Phil A. ST. AMANT.
Case Date:February 20, 1967
Court:Supreme Court of Louisiana

Page 255

196 So.2d 255 (La. 1967)

250 La. 405

Herman A. THOMPSON

v.

Phil A. ST. AMANT.

No. 48184.

Supreme Court of Louisiana.

February 20, 1967

Rehearing Denied March 27, 1967.

Page 256

[250 La. 409] Kleinpeter & Barnett, Baton Rouge, for relator.

Russell J. Schonekas, New Orleans, for defendant-respondent.

SUMMERS, Justice.

This action for $150,000 in damages for an alleged libel was instituted by Herman A. Thompson, a deputy sheriff of the parish of East Baton Rouge, against Phil A. St. Amant, a retired Army officer and business man of that parish.

The trial court found that the plaintiff, Thompson, hade made out his cause of action[250 La. 410] and, accordingly, condemned the defendant, St. Amant, to pay $5,000 as damages. Upon proper and timely application, a new trial was granted to reconsider the case in the light of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), which had been handed down in the meantime. After reconsideration the trial judge reinstated his original judgment. On appeal the First Circuit reversed, and we granted review on Thompson's application.

Page 257

The petition alleges that, on June 27, 1962, St. Amant, who was then a candidate for the office of United States Senator, appeared on a television program in Baton Rouge and delivered a political campaign address which was also reduced to writing and distributed to the press and other news media.

In the beginning of his speech St. Amant said:

'I have a story to reveal tonight which is so unusual that I have bought this time on the television to inform the public. This story involves a well-documented criminal, and ex-convict who became a labor chieftain. It involves misuse and theft of union funds, dealings with Communist officials of Cuba, a criminal conspiracy to destroy evidence and the destruction of that evidence; death resulting from the commission of a felony and a second death by a hit and run by a union car.'

[250 La. 411] The address thereafter consisted principally of the reading by St. Amant of a transcript of an interview which he had previously had with one J. D. Albin, a member of the local Teamsters' Union. The interview was in question and answer form, with St. Amant asking the questions which Albin answered. At St. Amant's urging, Albin had sworn to the correctness of the facts he recounted, and St. Amant had possession of the affidavit in written form.

By its content the speech was unmistakably designed to disclose Albin's knowledge of illegal, unsavory and criminal actions by E. G. Partin, business agent of the local Teamsters' Union. In the speech St. Amant claimed Senator Russell B. Long, his opponent and the incumbent United States Senator, had recommended Partin to James Hoffa, the union president. By this disclosure he sought to disparage his opponent.

Included among Partin's activities, according to Albin's statements which St. Amant read, was a visit by Partin with Fidel and Raoul Castro in Cuba during November 1960. St. Amant quoted Albin as saying that Partin was responsible for the negotiation of a labor contract in Baton Rouge, giving up many wage benefits and surreptitiously continuing a practice of longer working hours contrary to the interest of union members. Partin was accused of using union funds for his personal [250 La. 412] benefit, to pay house notes and the rent for his girl friend's car.

Albin related that Partin took 'numerous amounts of money out of the cash drawer during the week and at the end of the week he made this up by making a check out to someone else who would endorse it and they would deposit it into the union fund.' Albin then relates, in response to St. Amant's questions, that these practices prompted a local union member to write a letter to Arthur Goldberg, then Secretary of Labor, with a copy to James Hoffa, asking for an investigation of Partin's local union by the union hierarchy. According to Albin, when Partin learned of this he became 'pretty riled up' and enlisted four members of the union to 'help him get rid of the safe' which contained the union records. Albin continued:

'Now, we knew that this safe was gonna be moved that night, but imagine our predicament, knowing of Ed's connections with the Sheriff's office through Herman Thompson, who made recent visits to the Hall to see Ed. We also knew of money that had passed hands between Ed and Herman Thompson * * * from Ed to Herman. We also knew of his connections with State Trooper Lieutenant Joe Green. We knew we couldn't get any help from there and we didn't knew how far that he was involved in the Sheriff's office or the State Police office through [250 La. 413] that, and it was out of the jurisdiction of the City Police.'

In his narrative Albin asserted that the safe disappeared that night and that Thompson and Lieutenant Joe Green of the State Police investigated the case but nothing

Page 258

happened. The safe turned up 'a few months later, Albin said, when a young man by the name of Forman dove off the river bridge and hit his head on the safe * * * killing himself.' This death St. Amant and Albin characterized as 'a death resulted (sic) from the commission of a felony.' They concluded Forman's death was a 'murder' for which, they implied, Partin was responsible.

Then followed statements by Albin, all of which were likewise read by St. Amant, purporting to give information from Partin's 'rap sheet', revealing that Partin had been either arrested, charged or convicted for robbery, auto theft, breaking and entering, 'second degree burglary', rape, and robbery with firearms. Albin charged that Partin was responsible for the death of a young soldier in Alabama, killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident while Partin was driving the offending vehicle.

St. Amant continued to read the transcript of his interview with Albin, quoting Albin's story of why A. G. Klein, a good friend and a union member, was not 'testifying today.' He quoted Albin as saying that Klein, who had knowledge of the 'safe incident' and other illegal activites of [250 La. 414] Partin, testified before a Federal Grand Jury in New Orleans, and that shortly thereafter Klein met his death in St. Francisville when a truck 'dropped on top of him loaded with about ninety thousand pounds of sand.'

St. Amant's presentation of this policical address--the nammer in which he expressed himself, the tone and theme of the speech, the obvious manifestation of his belief in the veracity of Albin's statements--was calculated to impress upon the reader of listener that he had confidence in Albin's charges against Partin and Thompson and that he believed them to be true. The publication was principally designed to malign the conduct of the incumbent United States Senator; but to do this it was necessary to show Partin's unsavory character and criminal record. Thompson's name was brought into the story only incidentally, yet, he was nonetheless unmistakably accused of criminal conduct.

In his petition Thompson alleged that the publication by St. Amant was false, libelous, scurrilous and malicious and was intended to belittle, degrade and ridicule him. Clearly, he alleged, the publication reflected a design and intent on the part of the defendant, St. Amant, to defame, slander and libel Thompson's good name, reputation and character before his friends, the courts and the public in general. From St. Amant's remarks, the petition alleges, the false and defamatory imputation arises that Thompson[250 La. 415] was guilty of gross misconduct of a nefarious nature.

In his answer St. Amant admitted making the speech but denied that he defamed or intended to defame Thompson. He alleged that the context in which the remarks concerning Thompson were made shielded those remarks from any defamatory imputation. In the alternative, he alleged that the utterances concerning Thompson were true and their publication was for the public good. Even if not true, he alleges, there was no malice on his part.

As it is settled in Louisiana that the truth of a defamatory remark is generally a valid defense in a civil suit for defamation, it becomes necessary to decide initially if the remarks concerning Thompson were true. If they are shown to be true that would ordinarily end the case. If the utterances are false, however, we must then proceed to determine if they are defamatory and actionable. La.R.S. 13:3602; Deshotel v. Thistlewaite, 240 La. 12, 121 So.2d 222 (1960). Both the trial court and the Court of Appeal decided that the statements were not true, and we agree.

By his testimony at the trial, Thompson acknowledged that he first knew Partin in connection with labor disputes--to which Thompson had been assigned for duty. He got to know Partin better, he said, while investigating burglaries at the union hall. In fact, because he had been designated for

Page 259

special duty by the sheriff, he was required [250 La. 416] to come in contact with almost all of the union business agents in Baton Rouge. He knew them all by their first names and readily conceded that he received funds from Ed Partin when he picked up a check every year for the Baton Rouge Kids' Baseball Clinic. The United Mine Workers, pipefitters', electricians', carpenters', and other unions and several civic and charitable organizations were also solicited by him.

Other duties assigned to him included supervising a bell-ringing campaign for the Salvation Army, soliciting for the Volunteers of America, the March of Dimes, the Cystic Fibrosis Fund, the Elks Club and the Lions' Club. He assisted in these civic and charitable undertakings as a public service. And except for such solicitations, he had no connection with Partin other than as a law enforcement officer.

An effort was made to...

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