Mandell Menkes recently achieved a directed verdict on behalf of its clients – a local television station and a news reporter – in a jury trial in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio. The plaintiff in the case, a former high school art/photography teacher, alleged that our clients defamed him and placed him in a false light in connection with a news broadcast that reported on an investigation into allegations that the plaintiff gave students access to a laptop computer containing child pornography.
In 2011, two of plaintiff’s students told school officials that they observed pornography and child pornography on a laptop computer that plaintiff made available to students in his photography class. Based on the students’ statements, the school placed plaintiff on administrative leave and a police investigation commenced. In 2012, during the pendency of the police investigation, the television station broadcast a report on the status of “the investigation into a high school art teacher” who was “suspected of having child pornography on his personal computer.” The report did not name plaintiff, but it did contain a banner on the screen that read “TEACHER UNDER FIRE – Child porn found on laptop.” Although the students alleged to have found child porn on the teacher’s laptop, the ensuing police investigation did not uncover any child pornography.
After a week of testimony at trial, the court entered a directed verdict on behalf of our clients on the following grounds: (1) the allegations did not constitute defamation per se because plaintiff was not named in the report and extrinsic evidence was necessary to ascertain plaintiff’s identity; (2) the reporter was not liable because plaintiff admitted at trial that all of his verbal statements in the broadcast were either true or non-actionable opinion; and (3) the television station was not liable for defamation per quod or false light because the gist and sting of the report was substantially true and because plaintiff failed to prove incremental harm (i.e., causation).
Steve Rosenfeld led the trial team.