Amsbury v. Cowles Pub. Co.

Decision Date18 September 1969
Docket NumberNo. 39119,39119
Citation458 P.2d 882,76 Wn.2d 733
CourtWashington Supreme Court
PartiesDouglas G. AMSBURY, Ted E. Mills, James C. Burger, Raymond, P. LaVigne, James K. McBride and William L. Cooke, Appellants, v. The COWLES PUBLISHING COMPANY, a corporation, Respondent.

Cashatt, Williams, Connelly & Rekofke, Jerome Williams, Spokane, for appellant.

Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole, William V. Kelley, E. Glenn Harmon, Paul P. Ashley, Spokane, for respondent.

NEILL, Judge.

Plaintiffs appeal from a judgment entered on a verdict for defendant in a libel action. The alleged defamation arises from the same newspaper article involved in Tilton v. Cowles Publishing Co., Wash., 459 P.2d 8 (1969). The details concerning preparation, content and publication of the article are contained in our opinion in Tilton and will not be repeated here.

Plaintiffs are firemen employed by the Fire Department of the City of Spokane. They were named as defendants in the Parsons-Natwick suit and named in the news article both as defendants and as members of the Spokane Area Public Safety Council Executive Committee. None of the plaintiffs were members of the committee at the time the article was published.

At the close of all the evidence, plaintiffs moved for a directed verdict on the issue of liability. When this motion was denied, plaintiffs made a second motion to withdraw the issue of privilege from the jury. This was also denied.

The trial judge, over plaintiffs' exceptions, instructed the jury that the newspaper article was subject to a qualified privilege which could be overcome only by a showing that defendant was actuated by actual malice in publishing the article. The jury returned a verdict for defendant.

Five of the six plaintiffs appeal from the judgment entered on the verdict, assigning as error the denial of their motions for directed verdict and to withdraw the issue of privilege from the jury. Plaintiffs have not assigned error to any of the instructions given, nor have they set forth any of these instructions in their brief.

As an initial matter, defendant has made a motion to dismiss this appeal upon the ground that plaintiffs have failed to comply with Rule on Appeal 43, RCW vol. O. Defendant contends that plaintiffs, by assigning error to the trial court's failure to withdraw the issue of privilege from the jury, are, in effect, challenging the instructions on privilege without setting them forth in their brief. In support of this contention, defendant cites Wold v. Jones, 60 Wash.2d 327, 329, 373 P.2d 805 (1962), where the following assignments of error were made:

'The trial court erred:

'1. In failing to remove from the Jury's consideration Respondent's claim of loss of income.

'2. In failing to remove from the Jury's consideration Respondent's claim of loss of use of automobile.

'3. In failing to remove from the Jury's consideration Respondent's claim as to future medical treatment and expense.

We held that the above assignments related to the giving, or failure to give, of certain instructions which were not set out in the brief as required by ROA 43 and thus could not be considered. However, in Wold appellant did not make a motion to withdraw these issues from the jury.

The motions made by plaintiffs are a proper way to seek the withdrawal of an issue from the jury. Blomskog, Erickson & Cotton v. Seattle, 107 Wash. 471, 474, 182 P. 571 (1919).

Defendant also cites Rank v. Alaska Steamship Co., 45 Wash.2d 337, 338, 274 P.2d 583 (1954), in support of the motion to dismiss. The assignment of error was

'The lower court erred in withdrawing appellant's affirmative defense of contributory negligence from the jury and refusing to give appellant's proposed instructions Nos. 4 and 5.'

We refused to consider the assignment because appellant had failed to set out the instructions given. Again, that case did not involve a motion to withdraw the defense.

The purpose of ROA 43 was examined in Lakoduk v. Cruger, 48 Wash.2d 642, 666, 296 P.2d 690, 704 (1956):

This rule relates to cases where the giving of instructions, or the refusal to give requested instructions, has been assigned as error in appellants' brief. The rule does not relate to cases when the only assignment of error is that the trial court erred in granting a motion for new trial. The assignments in this case require us to review the legal sufficiency of the reasons stated in the trial court's order for granting respondents' motions for new trials.

When tested by the purposes of ROA 43, a motion for new trial is not much different from a motion for a directed verdict or to withdraw an issue from the jury. All three motions may be decided without bringing the instructions into issue. We therefore hold that plaintiffs can properly assign error to the denial of these two motions without assigning error to or setting forth any of the trial court's instructions in their brief.

The motions, denial of which plaintiffs have assigned as error, are as follows:

(T)he plaintiff moves for a directed verdict in favor of the plaintiff, subject only to determination by the jury of the damages, if any, sustained by the plaintiffs upon the grounds that the article in question is, as a matter of law, libelous per se, even though, first of all, there is no privilege, and secondly, if there is a privilege, it is a qualified privilege, which disappears upon an abuse of privilege--that is, upon a showing of what in law amounts to malice, * * * and that therefore, as a matter of law, he (the reporter) knew that any imputation of crime was false * * * and for that reason, as a matter of law, there is malice in the eyes of the law which wipes away any privilege that could exist. So, as a matter of law, the article being libelous per se, and the privilege having been abused, if there was a privilege, plaintiffs are entitled to a directed verdict.

That motion was denied, whereupon plaintiffs' counsel stated That motion having been denied, I'd like to move the Court that the issue of privilege, if there ever existed privilege in the case, should be withdrawn from the jury and the case submitted purely on the question of jury determination of whether the article was libelous per se, upon the same ground that the privilege, as a matter of law, was abused because of Mr. Roberts' testimony that he knew that no crime or criminal conduct was being suggested when he wrote this article, and therefore, he wrote the article, the defamatory article, the article that imputes a crime. Necessarily, that imputation of crime was false and knowingly false as to Mr. Roberts, and the newspaper being--and of course, Mr. Roberts is the newspaper.

Even assuming there was no privilege applicable to this publication or that any privilege was negated by proof of actual malice, before the motion for directed verdict could be granted the news article in question would have to be found libelous per se as a matter of law.

There are two meanings of the words 'per se' when used in defamation actions. These words may signify either (1) that the article is libelous on its face or (2) that it is actionable without proof of special damage. See Prosser, Torts § 107 (3d ed. 1964) at 782. Failure to differentiate between these two meanings has resulted in some confusion in analyzing defamation decisions.

As the term 'per se' has been used in our recent decisions it refers to that type of libel which, if proved, will result in recovery without proof of special damages. Whether the publication is libelous as a matter of law, or whether the very existence of a libel is a matter to be submitted to the jury, is a separate question.

A written publication is libelous per se (actionable without proof of special damages) if it tends to expose a living person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or to deprive him of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse. Owens v. Scott Publishing Co., 46 Wash.2d 666, 284 P.2d 296 (1955); Spangler v. Glover, 50 Wash.2d 473, 313 P.2d 354 (1957); Cf., RCW 9.58.010. It is clear that the imputation of a criminal offense involving moral turpitude is libel per se in this sense. Ward v. Painters' Local Union No. 300, 41 Wash.2d 859, 252 P.2d 253 (1953). In determining whether a publication can be defamatory, it must be construed in the sense in which it would ordinarily be understood by its readers. Purvis v. Bremer's Inc., 54 Wash.2d 743, 751, 344 P.2d 705 (1959).

3 Restatement, Torts § 614 outlines the division of functions between judge and jury in defamation actions as follows:

(1) The court determines whether a communication is capable of a defamatory meaning.

(2) The jury determines whether a communication, capable of a defamatory meaning, was so understood by its recipient.

Although the above section of the Restatement has been quoted with approval by us on at least two occasions (Purvis v. Bremer's Inc., Supra; Swartz v. World Publishing Co., 57 Wash.2d 213, 215, 356 P.2d 97 (1960)), our earlier cases do contain statements that would indicate that whether a writing is libelous per se is to be...

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