Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., Civ. A. No. 77-1067.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
Writing for the CourtRoberta S. Staats, Philadelphia, Pa., for Bulletin Co. t/a The Evening Bulletin
Citation455 F. Supp. 406
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 77-1067.
Decision Date15 August 1978
PartiesJohn MATHIS v. PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS, INC. t/a The Philadelphia Daily News, Bulletin Company t/a The Evening Bulletin, KYW-TV, WPVI-TV and WCAU-TV.

455 F. Supp. 406

John MATHIS
v.
PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS, INC. t/a The Philadelphia Daily News, Bulletin Company t/a The Evening Bulletin, KYW-TV, WPVI-TV and WCAU-TV.

Civ. A. No. 77-1067.

United States District Court, E. D. Pennsylvania.

August 15, 1978.


455 F. Supp. 407
COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED
455 F. Supp. 408
Gustine J. Pelagatti, Philadelphia, Pa., for plaintiff

Samuel E. Klein, Philadelphia, Pa., for Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. t/a The Philadelphia Daily News.

Roberta S. Staats, Philadelphia, Pa., for Bulletin Co. t/a The Evening Bulletin.

Arthur E. Newbold, IV, Steven B. Feirson, Philadelphia, Pa., for Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. t/a KYW-TV.

OPINION

LUONGO, District Judge.

John Mathis, a citizen of New Jersey, filed the complaint in this defamation action on March 24, 1977. Complaint ¶ 1. Jurisdiction is based solely on diversity of citizenship. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) (1976). The complaint names as defendants the

455 F. Supp. 409
publishers of two Philadelphia newspapers, the Daily News and the Evening Bulletin, as well as three television stations. By stipulation, the complaint was dismissed as to two of the three television stations; the remaining defendants are the two newspaper publishers and Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, which operates KYW-TV. All three defendants now move for summary judgment. For the reasons hereafter stated, I conclude that both newspaper publishers are entitled to summary judgment, but that Westinghouse Broadcasting Company is not

The factual record presently consists of the initial pleadings, answers to interrogatories, excerpts from depositions, admissions, and other exhibits, including copies of the allegedly defamatory newspaper articles. In addition, several affidavits are on file. Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, which operates KYW-TV, submitted the affidavits of Donald Fair and Matt Quinn, two of its reporters. The Bulletin Company submitted the affidavit of Harry Camp, one of the Evening Bulletin's police reporters. Plaintiff submitted the affidavits of Paul W. Nolan, an F.B.I. employee, and Paul Frankenfield, a Staff Inspector with the Philadelphia Police Department. Finally, Westinghouse Broadcasting Company submitted a rebuttal affidavit executed by Mr. Frankenfield.

On a motion for summary judgment, of course, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 347 n. 11, 96 S.Ct. 2074, 48 L.Ed.2d 684 (1976); United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962) (per curiam); Goodman v. Mead Johnson & Co., 534 F.2d 566, 573 (3d Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1038, 97 S.Ct. 732, 50 L.Ed.2d 748 (1977). With that admonition in mind, the essential facts in this case may be summarized as follows. On January 27, 1977, the Philadelphia Daily News carried an article reporting the arrest of two men in connection with an elaborate combined kidnapping and attempted bank robbery. Exhibit E to Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law (Document No. 67). The article correctly identified the suspects as two brothers, John and Tyrone Mathis, and it included what purported to be a photograph of each man. The photograph captioned "Tyrone Mathis," however, was actually a photograph of plaintiff, John Mathis, who was neither Tyrone Mathis' brother nor a suspect in the case. On the same day, the Evening Bulletin also carried an article correctly reporting that two brothers named John and Tyrone Mathis had been arraigned on charges stemming from the kidnapping and attempted bank robbery. Exhibit I to Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law (Document No. 67). The Bulletin article, too, included what purported to be a photograph of each suspect, but the photograph captioned "John Mathis" was actually a photograph of plaintiff rather than one of the John Mathis who had been charged with the various crimes. Finally, KYW-TV, in a news broadcast that evening, ran a story on the arrests and arraignments. The broadcast included a picture of plaintiff, John Mathis, which was shown in conjunction with this story, and the announcer identified that picture as a picture of one of the suspects in the case. Additional facts bearing on these occurrences will be reviewed later in this opinion.

The complaint alleges that:

"by reason of the said printing, publication and circulation of said false, scandalous, malicious, defamatory and libelous statements, . . . the Plaintiff has been brought into scandal and reproach and has been held up to odium, scorn and contempt amongst his neighbors, business acquaintances, customers and other good citizens in consequence of which the Plaintiff has suffered in his business, reputation, feelings and peace of mind to his great financial loss and damage."
Complaint ¶ 16.

Mathis seeks compensatory and punitive damages in an amount in excess of one million dollars. Id. See generally Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 348-50, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974) (absent a

455 F. Supp. 410
showing of "actual malice," private defamation plaintiff may recover compensatory damages only to the extent of his actual injury, and may not recover punitive damages)

Inasmuch as this is a diversity case, state law furnishes the substantive rules of decision. See Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Elec. Coop., Inc., 356 U.S. 525, 78 S.Ct. 893, 2 L.Ed.2d 953 (1958); Erie R. R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). Neither the plaintiff nor any of the defendants has suggested that the law of any jurisdiction other than Pennsylvania might apply here. Defendants present three distinct arguments in support of their parallel motions for summary judgment: (1) Mathis cannot prevail under Pennsylvania law unless he demonstrates that defendants acted with "actual malice," and the record contains no evidence that could support a finding of "actual malice." (2) Even if Mathis could prevail on a showing of mere negligence, the record contains no evidence to support a finding that defendants were negligent. (3) The complained-of publications were privileged under Pennsylvania law and thus are not actionable. With respect to the first issue, all three defendants take essentially the same position, but it will become necessary to treat KYW-TV and the two newspaper publishers separately in considering the remaining issues. For the reasons set out in this opinion, I conclude that both newspaper publishers are entitled to summary judgment based on a common-law privilege, but that Westinghouse Broadcasting Company is not.

THE APPLICABLE STANDARD OF CARE

Defendants argue initially that they are entitled to summary judgment because Pennsylvania law requires Mathis to show "actual malice" on their part in order to prevail. A review of the factual record, they urge, discloses no evidence at all that could support a jury finding of "actual malice," and so summary judgment in their favor is appropriate. Mathis contends, by way of response, that he need only establish negligence on the part of defendants in order to prevail.

If defendants' view of Pennsylvania law is accurate, they are unquestionably entitled to summary judgment, for the record is utterly devoid of evidence of "actual malice." In my view, however, Pennsylvania law allows a "private figure" plaintiff to recover based on a showing of negligence.

This sharply disputed issue of Pennsylvania law can perhaps best be viewed in the context of a series of Supreme Court decisions that have dramatically altered the common law of defamation throughout the United States. At common law, with respect to all but one1 of the elements of an action for defamation, strict liability was the rule. See J. Henderson & R. Pearson, The Torts Process 847 (1975); W. Prosser, Torts § 113 at 771-75 (4th ed. 1971). In particular, a defendant was held liable for publishing a defamatory falsehood, notwithstanding that he reasonably believed it to be true. The issue of reasonable belief in the truth of the statement might come into the case if the defense of privilege was raised, but the defendant's state of mind was simply irrelevant to the plaintiff's prima facie case. See J. Henderson & R. Pearson, The Torts Process 847 (1975); W. Prosser, Torts § 113 at 771, 773 (4th ed. 1971). This rule was sharply undercut by the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), where the Court held

455 F. Supp. 411
that the first and fourteenth amendments, taken together, preclude an award of damages in a defamation action brought by a public official to redress a defamatory statement relating to his official conduct "unless he proves that the statement was made with `actual malice' — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U.S. at 279-80, 84 S.Ct. at 726. Several years later, in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967), the Court extended New York Times v. Sullivan to defamation actions "instituted by persons who are not public officials, but who are `public figures' and involved in issues in which the public has a justified and important interest." 388 U.S. at 134, 87 S.Ct. at 1980

New York Times v. Sullivan was extended once again, this time to "all discussion and communication involving matters of public or general concern, without regard to whether the persons involved are famous or anonymous," in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, 403 U.S. 29, 44, 91 S.Ct. 1811, 1820, 29 L.Ed.2d 296 (1971) (plurality opinion) (footnote omitted). Under Justice Brennan's Rosenbloom formulation, which was joined by only two other members of the Court, even a "private figure" could not recover damages absent a showing of "actual malice," so long as the defamatory statements concerned matters of public interest. The five opinions filed in Rosenbloom clearly indicated, however, that the Court was divided over the...

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42 practice notes
  • Crump v. Beckley Newspapers, Inc., No. 15804
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 10, 1983
    ...(3rd Cir.1981) (reporting substance of confidential Federal Bureau of Investigation report); Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406 (E.D.Pa.1978) (publication of photograph of individual identified by a police department as a suspect in a crime); and (6) fair comment on ma......
  • Journal-Gazette Co. v. Bandido's, Inc., No. 57S03-9709-CV-00495.
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court of Indiana
    • June 23, 1999
    ...(E.D.Pa.1980), aff'd on other grounds, 643 F.2d 134 (3d Cir.1981) (applying Pennsylvania law); Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406, 410-12 (E.D.Pa.1978) (applying Pennsylvania law)); Puerto Rico (Torres-Silva v. El Mundo, 106 P.R.Dec. 15, 3 Med.L.Rep. (BNA) 1508, 1977 W......
  • Steaks Unlimited, Inc. v. Deaner, WTAE-TV4 and H
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 4, 1980
    ...Elec. Corp., 472 F.Supp. 946, 952 (W.D.Pa.1979) (Pennsylvania would adhere to Rosenbloom ) with Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406, 411-12 (E.D.Pa.1978) (Pennsylvania would abandon Rosenbloom and adopt negligence standard for suits involving private 36 See text at note......
  • Rutt v. Bethlehems' Globe Pub. Co., No. 671
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 9, 1984
    ...falsehoods concerning any matter of public interest absent a showing of "actual malice". See Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406, 411 (E.D.Pa.1978). Three years later the Supreme Court in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., supra, rejected the public interest test of Rosenbloo......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
42 cases
  • Crump v. Beckley Newspapers, Inc., No. 15804
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 10, 1983
    ...(3rd Cir.1981) (reporting substance of confidential Federal Bureau of Investigation report); Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406 (E.D.Pa.1978) (publication of photograph of individual identified by a police department as a suspect in a crime); and (6) fair comment on ma......
  • Journal-Gazette Co. v. Bandido's, Inc., No. 57S03-9709-CV-00495.
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court of Indiana
    • June 23, 1999
    ...(E.D.Pa.1980), aff'd on other grounds, 643 F.2d 134 (3d Cir.1981) (applying Pennsylvania law); Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406, 410-12 (E.D.Pa.1978) (applying Pennsylvania law)); Puerto Rico (Torres-Silva v. El Mundo, 106 P.R.Dec. 15, 3 Med.L.Rep. (BNA) 1508, 1977 W......
  • Steaks Unlimited, Inc. v. Deaner, WTAE-TV4 and H
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 4, 1980
    ...Elec. Corp., 472 F.Supp. 946, 952 (W.D.Pa.1979) (Pennsylvania would adhere to Rosenbloom ) with Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406, 411-12 (E.D.Pa.1978) (Pennsylvania would abandon Rosenbloom and adopt negligence standard for suits involving private 36 See text at note......
  • Rutt v. Bethlehems' Globe Pub. Co., No. 671
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 9, 1984
    ...falsehoods concerning any matter of public interest absent a showing of "actual malice". See Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 455 F.Supp. 406, 411 (E.D.Pa.1978). Three years later the Supreme Court in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., supra, rejected the public interest test of Rosenbloo......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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