Muresan v. Philadelphia Romanian Pentecostal Church

Decision Date17 June 1998
Citation962 P.2d 711,154 Or.App. 465
PartiesVictor MURESAN and Vicky Muresan, husband and wife, Respondents, v. PHILADELPHIA ROMANIAN PENTECOSTAL CHURCH, aka, Romanian Assembly Church of God, and Nicky Pop, Appellants, and Gavrila Leusca, Mihai Contra, Dragos Salar, Pavel Dobra, Petru Dehelean, Willy Willson, Flore Gherman, Vasile Ianos, Pavel Covaci, Vasile Onofrei and Gabriel Leusca, Defendants. 9412-08243; CA A93142.
CourtOregon Court of Appeals

Peter R. Chamberlain, Portland, argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs was Bodyfelt Mount Stroup & Chamberlain.

Margaret H. Leek, Portland, argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief were Ivan M. Karmel and Leiberan & Gazeley.

Before RIGGS, P.J., and LANDAU and WOLLHEIM *, JJ.

LANDAU, Judge.

Defendants 1 seek reversal of the judgment following the jury's verdict for plaintiffs finding defendants liable for slander and invasion of privacy. We affirm.

We view the facts drawn in the light most favorable to plaintiffs as the prevailing parties. See Brown v. Boise-Cascade Corp., 150 Or.App. 391, 392 n. 4, 946 P.2d 324 (1997); Hickey v. Settlemier, 141 Or.App. 103, 108, 917 P.2d 44, rev. den. 323 Or. 690, 920 P.2d 549 (1996). Plaintiffs, Victor and Vicky Muresan, are Romanian immigrants who are members of defendant Philadelphia Romanian Pentecostal Church, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. Defendant Nicky Pop is a pastor at the church. Plaintiffs made their living by running an adult foster home that always was filled to capacity. Victor is an ordained pastor within the Pentecostal faith and occasionally preached at the church. Vicky maintained certification as a nurse and was a popular midwife in the Romanian community. The Muresans attended church services and meetings several times a week. The church was the central focus of their lives.

In 1992, the church members planned to build a new church building. There ensued some debate over whether the new building would belong solely to them or to the Assemblies of God. Pop called for a secret vote to decide the ownership of the building, and the majority of votes favored separation from the Assemblies of God. Pop stated that he would take action to effectuate the vote. One or two months later, however, Pop announced that the church would remain with the Assemblies of God and that anyone not in favor of that decision could leave. At some point after that statement, Pop remarked to members at a meeting that the new construction would not belong to the Assemblies of God. Hearing the inconsistency in Pop's statements, Victor asked Pop to put what he said in writing. Pop dated and signed a blank piece of paper, and Victor asked him to write what he had said on the paper, which he then did. After that incident, Pop's attitude toward Victor changed, and Pop began to isolate and avoid him.

On October 3, 1993, three of plaintiffs' children were injured in an automobile accident. While stopped at an intersection, they were hit from behind by a car driven by Mishel Contra, the daughter of another church family. Mishel had only a driver's permit and not a driver's license. One of the children, Daniela Muresan, who was an adult, telephoned the police to report the accident. She was informed that her insurance company would handle it and that the police would not come to the accident site because no one was bleeding. Mishel's father, Mihai Contra, arrived at the site, but refused to give Daniela his insurance policy information. He stated that he would speak about the accident only with Victor. The next day, Mihai spoke with Victor and offered to buy the Muresan's car. He said that he wanted to avoid having the Muresans file a report on the accident, because he did not want his daughter to have a bad record for driving without a license. Mihai later delivered a letter to Victor stating that he would stop by that evening with a check for $2,000 to buy the car and that he would pay the balance in the future. Victor waited at home, but Mihai never called or appeared.

Meanwhile, Daniela knew that Oregon law obliged her to report the accident within 72 hours, and, two days after the accident, she reported the accident to the Department of Motor Vehicles and filed a report with her insurance agent. She did not tell her parents about reporting the accident until after the fact. At the same time, she began experiencing headaches and dizziness and went to a chiropractor. She received treatment for her injuries for approximately four months. Daniela's sister, Gabriela Muresan, also was injured in the accident and sought treatment for her neck and lower back. Daniela hired an attorney, and she and Gabriela settled their insurance claims so that all attorney and medical bills were paid, and they each received $4,000 for pain and suffering.

Victor heard nothing more about the accident from Mihai or any other church member, and he continued to preach occasionally and to participate in church activities. Two months after the accident, however, Pop told Victor that he should come in front of the church board, because Contra was "squeezing my throat, my neck, because I call you to preach." A day or two later, on December 8, 1993, the board met, and Victor appeared. The board meeting opened with Mihai describing his "unhappiness" with the fact that Victor's daughter had filed a report about the accident. Victor replied that he was not responsible for his daughter's actions because she was 21 years old and it was her car. At that point, several board members expressed their disapproval of Victor for allowing his daughter to file the report and for his continuing to preach when he knew that Mihai had something against him. When the discussion ended, Pop announced to Victor that he could leave the meeting and that the board would send him its response in writing.

No response came, and, during the next three months, Victor was not assigned any activities in the church. He did continue to work on the construction of the new church with the other men, however. While working on the construction, church members began to ask Victor whether what was being said about him was true--that he was taking his children to the doctor and having them pretend to be sick to get money from the Contra family. At the same time, the Muresans noticed that people from the church began to distance themselves from the family. Approximately four months after the board meeting, Pop told Victor that Mihai wanted to make peace with him and inquired as to whether Victor wanted the same. Victor replied that he never had any problem with Mihai, but that he was willing to meet and make peace at any time. A few days later, Victor ran into Mihai at the church, and they talked together for about two hours and made peace with each other. Pop approached and expressed pleasure that peace had been made, yet declined Mihai's request that the peace be declared in front of the board, stating that it was not necessary, because he, Pop, represented the board.

Some time after that, another church member told Victor that Pop had said to him that "[Victor] took the Contra family to court to get money and he sent his kids to the doctor to pretend they are ill just to get money from a family[.]" In May, Victor again was called before the board to discuss the matter of the accident. He appeared at a meeting on May 20, 1994, at which Mihai stated that Victor should not be allowed to preach for the next three years, because the Contra family had to pay high insurance premiums for that amount of time. Pop accused Victor of taking his children to the doctor and having them pretend to be sick so that he could take money untruthfully from the Contras. Neither Pop, nor any other church member, ever investigated the facts of the situation to ascertain the extent of damage done to the car or the injuries suffered by the passengers. Pop did not know whether the Muresan children, in fact, were injured by the accident.

Victor and Vicky filed a complaint against Pop on December 5, 1994, alleging defamation and other torts. They later amended their complaint to allege invasion of privacy by placing the Muresans in a false light. The complaint also named the church as a defendant, vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of its employee, Pop. Following the filing of the complaint, Pop made further statements about the Muresans to approximately 200 people gathered at a meeting held on February 25, 1995. He stated that the Muresans's daughters went to the doctor pretending to be sick and that Victor had an arrangement with his doctor and his lawyer in an effort to get "untrue" money from Mihai. The next day, in front of the entire church assembly of several hundred people, Pop again accused the Muresan family of acting fraudulently. Plaintiffs later amended their complaint to include additional allegations of defamation by Pop.

At the close of trial, defendants moved for a directed verdict on the defamation and false light claims. In the alternative, and on the same grounds, they moved to strike all of the defamation and false light allegations. As to the defamation claim, defendants offered two arguments. First, defendants contended that whatever statements Pop made about plaintiffs were subject to a qualified privilege, because those statements were made for a religious purpose. Second, defendants contended that plaintiffs failed to prove that Pop defamed them. Specifically, they argued that, because plaintiffs had failed to plead or prove pecuniary harm caused by Pop's statements about the Muresans, plaintiffs could prevail only if they proved that Pop had committed slander per se, and plaintiffs failed to prove that. Plaintiffs responded that any qualified privilege that might otherwise have applied was lost, because Pop lacked reasonable grounds to believe that his statements were...

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    ...206 (1964) (defendant church did not file timely demurrer in defamation action by former minister); Muresan v. Philadelphia Romanian Pentecostal Church, 154 Or.App. 465, 474, 962 P.2d 711, rev. den., 327 Or. 621, 971 P.2d 413 (1998) (defendant church failed to preserve its contention that a......
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