419 U.S. 245 (1974), 73-5520, Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.

Docket Nº:No. 73-5520
Citation:419 U.S. 245, 95 S.Ct. 465, 42 L.Ed.2d 419
Party Name:Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.
Case Date:December 18, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

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419 U.S. 245 (1974)

95 S.Ct. 465, 42 L.Ed.2d 419



Forest City Publishing Co.

No. 73-5520

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 18, 1974

Argued November 13, 1974




Petitioners, a mother and her son, brought a diversity action against respondents, a newspaper publisher and a reporter, for invasion of privacy based on a feature story in the newspaper discussing the impact upon petitioners' family of the death of the father in a bridge collapse. The story concededly contained a number of inaccuracies and false statements about the family. The District Judge struck the claims for punitive damages for lack of evidence of malice "within the legal definition of that term," but allowed the case to go to the jury on the "false light" theory of invasion of privacy, after instructing the jurors that liability could be imposed only if they found that the false statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth, and the jury returned a verdict for compensatory damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Judge should have directed a verdict for respondents, since his finding of no malice in striking the punitive [95 S.Ct. 467] damages claims was based on the definition of "actual malice" established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, and thus was a determination that there was no evidence of the knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth required for liability.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the jury's verdict. Pp. 251-254.

(a) The record discloses that the District Judge, when he dismissed the punitive damages claims, was not referring to the New York Times "actual malice" standard, but to the common law standard of malice that is generally required under state tort law to support an award of punitive damages, and that, in a "false light" case, would focus on the defendant's attitude toward the plaintiff's privacy, and not on the truth or falsity of the material published, and thus was not determining that petitioners had failed to introduce evidence of knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. Pp. 251-252.

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(b) Moreover, the evidence was sufficient to support jury findings that respondents had published knowing or reckless falsehoods about petitioners, particularly with respect to "calculated falsehoods" about petitioner mother's being present when the story was being prepared, and that respondent reporter's writing of the story was within the scope of his employment at the newspaper so as to render respondent publisher vicariously liable under respondeat superior for the knowing falsehoods in the story. Pp. 252-254.

484 F.2d 150, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 254.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

Margaret Cantrell and four of her minor children brought this diversity action in a Federal District Court for invasion of privacy against the Forest City Publishing Co., publisher of a Cleveland newspaper, the Plain Dealer, and against Joseph Eszterhas, a reporter formerly employed by the Plain Dealer, and Richard Conway, a Plain Dealer photographer. The Cantrells alleged that an article published in the Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine unreasonably placed their family in a false light before the public through its many inaccuracies and untruths. The District Judge struck the claims relating to punitive damages as to all the plaintiffs and dismissed the actions of three of the Cantrell children in their entirety, but allowed the case to go to the jury

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as to Mrs. Cantrell and her oldest son, William. The jury returned a verdict against all three of the respondents for compensatory money damages in favor of these two plaintiffs.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that, in the light of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the District Judge should have granted the respondents' motion for a directed verdict as to all the Cantrells' claims. 484 F.2d 150. We granted certiorari, 418 U.S. 909.


In December, 1967, Margaret Cantrell's husband Melvin was killed along with 43 other people when the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, W.Va. collapsed. The respondent Eszterhas was assigned by the Plain Dealer to cover the story of the disaster. He wrote a "news feature" story focusing on the funeral of Melvin Cantrell and the impact of his death on the Cantrell family.

Five months later, after conferring with the Sunday Magazine editor of the Plain Dealer, Eszterhas and photographer Conway returned to the Point Pleasant area to write a follow-up feature. The two men went to the Cantrell [95 S.Ct. 468] residence, where Eszterhas talked with the children and Conway took 50 pictures. Mrs. Cantrell was not at home at any time during the 60 to 90 minutes that the men were at the Cantrell residence.

Eszterhas' story appeared as the lead feature in the August 4, 1968, edition of the Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine. The article stressed the family's abject poverty; the children's old, ill-fitting clothes and the deteriorating condition of their home were detailed in both the text and accompanying photographs. As he had done in his original, prize-winning article on the Silver Bridge disaster, Eszterhas used the Cantrell...

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