Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., Inc., Civ.A. No. 81-0082.

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtRobert M. Callagy, New York City, for defendant Doubleday
Citation518 F. Supp. 1285
PartiesLee DRESBACH, Plaintiff, v. DOUBLEDAY & COMPANY, INC., et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCiv.A. No. 81-0082.
Decision Date31 July 1981

518 F. Supp. 1285

Lee DRESBACH, Plaintiff,
v.
DOUBLEDAY & COMPANY, INC., et al., Defendants.

Civ.A. No. 81-0082.

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

July 31, 1981.


518 F. Supp. 1286

Jacob A. Stein, Michael A. Schuchat, Washington, D.C., for plaintiff.

Robert M. Callagy, New York City, for defendant Doubleday.

Fred. H. Harrison, Little Rock, Ark., for defendant Mewshaw.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOYCE HENS GREEN, District Judge.

This is a diversity action for invasion of privacy and libel concerning the book Life For Death, (the Book) written by defendant Michael Mewshaw and published by defendant Doubleday & Company. The Book concerns the 1961 murders of the parents of plaintiff Lee Dresbach by his brother

518 F. Supp. 1287
Wayne Dresbach. At the time, plaintiff was fourteen and his brother was fifteen years old. Defendant Mewshaw, a slightly older peer of the plaintiff's, was a summertime neighbor and personal acquaintance of the Dresbachs before the murders. After the murders, defendant's parents became intensely involved with both Wayne and Lee Dresbach. They frequently visited Wayne in prison, (sometimes accompanied by the author), and were active in arranging for the appeal of his conviction. Lee lived in their home for about three years. During some of this period, the plaintiff was dating defendant's sister. Therefore, much of the Book, which defendant describes as "significantly autobiographical", is based upon personal experience. Plaintiff claims that the Book exposes private information about him which is offensive and objectionable to reasonable persons of ordinary sensibilities. He avers that he has always endeavored to conduct himself as a private person, and that the events described in the Book received no public attention during most of the intervening period between 1961 and the publication of the Book in 1980

The libel claim is based upon plaintiff's characterization of the Book as identifying him as a co-conspirator and accessory before and after the fact in the murder of his parents; he asserts that several misstatements of fact in the Book have the effect of accusing him of the murder of his parents. Plaintiff alleges that those statements were either known by the defendants to be untrue or made with a reckless disregard for the truth.

Both defendants have moved for summary judgment on both counts.

Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy was not an early common law action, but was adopted in various forms by courts and legislatures beginning in the early twentieth century on the inspiration of a law review article by Samuel D. Warren and (later to be Justice) Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harvard L.Rev. 193 (1890). The cause of action described in the article was based on the right "to be let alone", free from the unauthorized publication of matters concerning one's private life, habits, acts, and relations. The injury to be redressed was to the feelings and sensibilities of the person, (rather than to his reputation in the community as in a defamation action), and the truth or falsehood of the publication was irrelevant, as was the ill will or culpability of the author. However, the right of privacy described in the article did not prohibit publication of matter of public or general interest.

The denomination "invasion of privacy" has since been applied to the unauthorized appropriation of one's name or likeness, (as in advertising), unreasonable invasion into one's seclusion, (such as a "peeping Tom" or electronic surveillance), and to publicity which unreasonably places one in a false light before the public. Restatement of Torts (2d) § 652A. Plaintiff appears to be alleging both the type of invasion originally discussed by Brandeis and Warren, that is, unreasonable publicity to one's private life, and "false light" publicity.

The tort of invasion of privacy is recognized in the District of Columbia. Bernstein v. National Broadcasting Co., 129 F.Supp. 817 (D.D.C.1955), aff'd, 232 F.2d 369 (D.C.Cir.1956), cert. denied, 352 U.S. 945, 77 S.Ct. 267, 1 L.Ed.2d 239 (1956); Afro-American Publishing Co. v. Jaffe, 366 F.2d 649 (D.C.Cir.1966). To prevail upon a claim for unreasonable publicity to one's private life, the plaintiff must show publication of private facts in which the public has no legitimate concern, whose publication would cause suffering, shame, or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities. This jurisdiction follows Warren and Brandeis' suggested exclusion of matters of legitimate public or general interest from the scope of the unreasonable publicity tort. Elmhurst v. Pearson, 153 F.2d 467 (D.C.Cir. 1946); Pearson v. Dodd, 410 F.2d 701 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 395 U.S. 947, 89 S.Ct. 2021, 23 L.Ed.2d 465 (1969). However, one may prevail in a false light invasion of privacy action even where the subject matter is of general or public interest. Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245,

518 F. Supp. 1288
95 S.Ct. 465, 42 L.Ed.2d 419 (1974). (Upholds plaintiffs' verdict on false light theory without disturbing Court of Appeals' finding, Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing, 484 F.2d 150 (6th Cir. 1973), that the subject matter was of legitimate public interest). Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 87 S.Ct. 534, 17 L.Ed.2d 456 (1967). (False reports of matters of public interest may be redressed, if actual malice standard met). Logan v. District of Columbia, 447 F.Supp. 1328 (D.D.C.1978)

The Supreme Court has clearly held that in order to adequately accommodate First Amendment values in defamation actions, the publication must be shown to be false, and published either with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for its truth or falsity, (actual malice), in the case of a public official or public figure; or with some degree of fault in the case of private individuals. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974). The Court has also applied the actual malice standard to a false light case. Time, Inc. v. Hill, supra. However, the Court later characterized as an open question whether the actual malice standard need apply to all false light cases, citing Gertz v. Robert Welch, supra. Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., supra. Time Inc. v. Hill was decided before Gertz, which held that the actual malice standard was not constitutionally required in defamation actions involving private persons, even though the subject matter of the publication could be considered newsworthy. Although the Supreme Court has had no occasion to decide the matter, no reason appears to distinguish false light invasion of privacy actions from defamation actions in this regard. Since the District of Columbia applies a negligence standard to defamation actions involving private individuals, Phillips v. Evening Star Newspaper Co., 424 A.2d 78 (D.C.App.1980), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 101 S.Ct. 2327, 68 L.Ed.2d 848 (1981), that standard should also be applied to a false light action.

Despite the Supreme Court's requirement that not just falsity, but negligent, reckless or intentional falsity, be a defense to a defamation action, the Court has not ruled out a cause of action based upon true statements constituting an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 487-491, 95 S.Ct. 1029, 1042-1044, 43 L.Ed.2d 328 (1975); Time, Inc. v. Hill, supra at 382-384 and n. 7, 87 S.Ct. at 539-540 and n.7; Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 70-75 and n. 9, 85 S.Ct. 209, 213-216 and n.9, 13 L.Ed.2d 125 (1964). In order to protect First Amendment values regarding such statements (which would seem more deserving of protection than the false statements which are the subject of defamation actions), the lower courts have given broad latitude to the exception applied to publications which although possibly revealing private information offensive to the ordinary person, are of public or general interest. E. g. Sidis v. F-R Publishing Corp., 113 F.2d 806, 809-810 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 311 U.S. 711, 61 S.Ct. 393, 85 L.Ed. 462 (1940) (cited in Garrison v. Louisiana, supra at n. 9); Campbell v. Seabury Press, 614 F.2d 395 (5th Cir. 1980); Elmhurst v. Pearson, supra. In fact it has been suggested that the exception has swallowed the rule. Kalven, Privacy in Tort Law — Were Warren and Brandeis Wrong? 31 Law & Contemporary Problems 326, 335-336 (1966); Time, Inc. v. Hill, supra, at n. 7 and cases cited therein.

In our case, plaintiff asserts that there was no public interest in the subject matter of the Book at the time of its publication in 1980, as opposed to the time of the events described, and that the issues of public interest claimed by defendants to be explored in the Book, such as child abuse, violent youth, and the functioning of the criminal justice system, have nothing to do with plaintiff, and do not justify publication of private facts about him. Facts which plaintiff believes cast him in a bad light and are unnecessary to the stated purposes of the Book include the limited number of visits he made to his brother in jail, his "abandonment" of his brother, his failure to render financial assistance to his brother, the fact

518 F. Supp. 1289
that he did not share his inheritance from his parents with his brother, and his concealment of his whereabouts from him. In addition, plaintiff objects generally to the inclusion of private facts about his childhood and his life after the murders, as well as to his appearance as a "central character" in the Book.1

While plaintiff disputes the accuracy of some of these disclosures, the truth of some, such as the fact that he did not share his inheritance with his brother, is undenied. (Plaintiff's Deposition at 83-84.) The cause of action as to true statements will be discussed first, followed by the false light aspect of the claim.

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34 practice notes
  • Pearce v. EF Hutton Group, Inc., Civ. A. No. 86-0008.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • July 14, 1987
    ...of this case. It is clear that the District of Columbia does recognize the false light action. See, e.g., Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1291 (D.D.C.1981); Logan v. District of Columbia, 447 F.Supp. 1328, 1332-34 (D.D.C.1978). The only issue is whether Missouri recognizes su......
  • Romaine v. Kallinger
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • February 18, 1988
    ...or normally considered "private", because the court record places the facts in the public arena. See, e.g., Dresbach v. Doubleday, 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1290 (D.D.C.1981) ("republication of matters which are in the public record of the trial and related proceedings, no matter how private or off......
  • Fitzgerald v. Penthouse Intern., Ltd., Civ. A. No. M-77-1900.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • October 22, 1981
    ...constitutional law, that private individuals need show only negligence in a "false light" suit, see Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., Inc., 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1288 (D.D.C.1981), the court need not reach that 525 F. Supp. 603 issue because it has already determined that Fitzgerald is a limited pub......
  • Lerman v. Flynt Distributing Co., Inc., No. 724
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • September 10, 1984
    ...480 F.2d 428, 431 (8th Cir.1973), cert. dismissed, 418 U.S. 911, 94 S.Ct. 3203, 41 L.Ed.2d 1157 (1974); Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1288 (D.D.C.1981). Therefore, we must address the federal constitutional question to determine the appropriate standard of fault plaintiff s......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
34 cases
  • Pearce v. EF Hutton Group, Inc., Civ. A. No. 86-0008.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • July 14, 1987
    ...of this case. It is clear that the District of Columbia does recognize the false light action. See, e.g., Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1291 (D.D.C.1981); Logan v. District of Columbia, 447 F.Supp. 1328, 1332-34 (D.D.C.1978). The only issue is whether Missouri recognizes su......
  • Romaine v. Kallinger
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • February 18, 1988
    ...or normally considered "private", because the court record places the facts in the public arena. See, e.g., Dresbach v. Doubleday, 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1290 (D.D.C.1981) ("republication of matters which are in the public record of the trial and related proceedings, no matter how private or off......
  • Fitzgerald v. Penthouse Intern., Ltd., Civ. A. No. M-77-1900.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • October 22, 1981
    ...constitutional law, that private individuals need show only negligence in a "false light" suit, see Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., Inc., 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1288 (D.D.C.1981), the court need not reach that 525 F. Supp. 603 issue because it has already determined that Fitzgerald is a limited pub......
  • Lerman v. Flynt Distributing Co., Inc., No. 724
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • September 10, 1984
    ...480 F.2d 428, 431 (8th Cir.1973), cert. dismissed, 418 U.S. 911, 94 S.Ct. 3203, 41 L.Ed.2d 1157 (1974); Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 518 F.Supp. 1285, 1288 (D.D.C.1981). Therefore, we must address the federal constitutional question to determine the appropriate standard of fault plaintiff s......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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