Pollard v. Lyon

Citation23 L.Ed. 308,91 U.S. 225
Decision Date01 October 1875
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

Mr. Joseph H. Bradley and Mr. A. G. Riddle for the plaintiff in error, and Mr. Walter S. Cox for the defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the court.

Words both false and slanderous, it is alleged, were spoken by the defendant of the plaintiff; and she sues in an action on the case for slander to recover damages for the injury to her name and fame.

Controversies of the kind, in their legal aspect, require pretty careful examination; and, in view of that consideration, it is deemed proper to give the entire declaration exhibited in the transcript, which is as follows:——

'That the defendant, on a day named, speaking of the plaintiff, falsely and maliciously said, spoke, and published of the plaintiff the words following, 'I saw her in bed with Captain Denty.' That at another time, to wit, on the same day, the defendant falsely and maliciously spoke and published of the plaintiff the words following, 'I looked over the transom-light and saw Mrs. Pollard,' meaning the plaintiff, 'in bed with Captain Denty;' whereby the plaintiff has been damaged and injured in her name and fame, and she claims damages therefor in the sum of ten thousand dollars.'

Whether the plaintiff and defendant are married or single persons does not appear; nor is it alleged that they are not husband and wife, nor in what respect the plaintiff has suffered loss beyond what may be inferred from the general averment that she had been damaged and injured in her name and fame.

Service was made, and the defendant appeared and pleaded the general issue; which being joined, the parties went to trial; and the jury, under the instructions of the court, found a verdict in favor of the plaintiff for the whole amount claimed in the declaration. None of the other proceedings in the case, at the special term, require any notice, except to say that the defendant filed a motion in arrest of judgment, on the ground that the words set forth in the declaration are not actionable, and because the declaration does not state a cause of action which entitles the plaintiff to recover; and the record shows that the court ordered that the motion be heard at general term in the first instance. Both parties appeared at the general term, and were fully heard; and the court sustained the motion in arrest of judgment, and decided that the declaration was bad in substance. Judgment was subsequently rendered for the defendant, and the plaintiff sued out the present writ of error.

Definitions of slander will afford very little aid in disposing of any question involved in this record, or in any other, ordinarily arising in such a controversy, unless where it becomes necessary to define the difference between oral and written defamation, or to prescribe a criterion to determine, in cases where special damage is claimed, whether the pecuniary injury alleged naturally flows from the speaking of the words set forth in the declaration. Different definitions of slander are given by different commentators upon the subject; but it will be sufficient to say that oral slander, as a cause of action, may be divided into five classes, as follows: (1.) Words falsely spoken of a person which impute to the party the commission of some cirminal offence involving moral turpitude, for which the party, if the charge is true, may be indicted and punished. (2.) Words falsely spoken of a person which impute that the party is infected with some contagious disease, where, if the charge is true, it would exclude the party from society; or (3.) Defamatory words falsely spoken of a person, which impute to the party unfitness to perform the duties of an office or employment of profit, or the want of integrity in the discharge of the duties of such an office or employment. (4.) Defamatory words falsely spoken of a party which prejudice such party in his or her profession or trade. (5.) Defamatory words falsely spoken of a person, which, though not in themselves actionable, occasion the party special damage.

Two-propositions are submitted by the plaintiff to show that the court below erred in sustaining the motion in arrest of judgment, and in deciding that the declaration is bad in substance: (1.) That the words set forth in the declaration are in themselves actionable, and consequently that the plaintiff is entitled to recover, without averring or proving special damage. (2.) That if the words set forth are not actionable per se, still the plaintiff is entitled to recover under the second paragraph of the declaration, which, as she insists, contains a sufficient allegation that the words spoken of her by the defendant were, in a pecuniary sense, injurious to her, and that they did operate to her special damage.

Certain words, all admit, are in themselves actionable, because the natural consequence of what they impute to the party is damage, as if they import a charge that the party has been guilty of a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, or that the party is infected with a contagious distemper, or if they are prejudicial in a pecuniary sense to a person in office or to a person engaged as a livelihood in a profession or trade; but in all other cases the party who brings an action for words must show the damage he or she has suffered by the false speaking of the other party.

Where the words are intrinsically actionable, the inference or presumption of law is that the false speaking occasions loss to the plaintiff; and it is not necessary for the plaintiff to aver that the words alleged amount to the charging of the described offence, for their actionable quality is a question of law, and not of fact, and will be collected by the court from the words alleged and proved, if they warrant such a conclusion.

Unless the words alleged impute the offence of adultery, it can hardly be contended that they impute any criminal offence for which the party may be indicted and punished in this district; and the court is of the opinion that the words do not impute such an offence, for the reason that the declaration does not allege that either the plaintiff or the defendant was married at the time the words were spoken. Support to that view is derived from what was shown at the argument, that fornication as well as adultery was defined as an offence by the provincial statute of the 3d of June, 1715, by which it was enacted that persons guilty of those offences, if convicted, should be fined and punished as therein provided. Kilty's Laws, ch. xxvii., sects. 2, 3.

Beyond all doubt, offences of the kind involve moral turpitude; but the second section of the act which defined the offence of fornication was, on the 8th of March, 1785, repealed by the legislature of the State. 2 Kilty, ch. xlvii., sect. 4.

Sufficient is remarked to show that the old law of the province defining such an offence was repealed by the law of the State years before the Territory, included within the limits of the city, was ceded by the State to the United States; and inasmuch as the court is not referred to any later law passed by the State, defining such an offence, nor to any act of Congress to that effect passed since the cession, our conclusion is that the plaintiff fails to show that the words alleged impute any criminal offence to the plaintiff for which she can be indicted and punished.

Suppose that is so: still the plaintiff contends that the words alleged, even though they do not impute any criminal offence to the plaintiff, are nevertheless actionable in themselves, because the misconduct which they do impute is derogatory to her character, and highly injurious to her social standing.

Actionable words are doubtless such as naturally imply damage to the party; but it must be borne in mind that there is a marked distinction between slander and libel, and that many things are actionable when written or printed and published which would not be actionable if merely spoken, without averring and proving special damage. Clement v. Chivis, 9 Barn. & Cress. 174; McClurg v. Ross, 5 Binn. 219.

Unwritten words, by all, or nearly all, the modern authorities, even if they impute immoral conduct to the party, are not actionable in themselves, unless the misconduct imputed amounts to a criminal offence, for which the party may be indicted and punished. Judges as well as commentators, in early times, experienced much difficulty in extracting any uniform definite rule from the old decisions in the courts of the parent country to guide the inquirer in such an investigation; nor is it strange that such attempts have been attended with so little success, as it is manifest that the incongruities are quite material, and, in some respects, irreconcilable. Nor are the decisions of the courts of that country, even of a later period, entirely free from that difficulty.

Examples both numerous and striking are found in the reported decisions of the period last referred to, of which only a few will be mentioned. Words which of themselves are actionable, said Lord Holt, must either endanger the party's life, or subject him to infamous punishment; that it is not enough that the party may be fined and imprisoned, for a party may be fined and imprisoned for a common trespass, and none will hold that to say one has committed a trespass will bear an action; and he added that at least the thing charged must 'in itself be scandalous.' Ogden v. Turner, 6 Mod. 104.

Viewed in any proper light, it is plain that the judge who gave the opinion in that case meant to decide that words, in order that they may be actionable in themselves, must impute to the party a criminal offence affecting the social standing of the party, for which the party may be indicted and punished.

Somewhat different phraseology is employed by the court in the next case to which...

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    ...discussed four classes of "oral slander" that were actionable without having to show special damages, quoting Pollard v. Lyon, 91 U.S. 225, 226, 1 Otto 225, 23 L.Ed. 308 (1875). In Mains, the plaintiff was an attorney representing a client charged with embezzlement. Mains, 87 Mich. at 173–1......
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