Tragically, in 2007, a teenage girl from Indiana was found dead in her bed. At the scene of the incident, a miscommunication between the pathologist conducting the autopsy, Dr. Joseph Czaja, and the coroner’s office led to a procedural mishap. Due to the confusion, the autopsy pathologist ended up changing his cause of death conclusion a few months into the ensuing litigation – a change that ultimately led to a judge dismissing the murder case.
Why Did The Doctor File A Defamation Lawsuit Against The Lawyer?
The demise of the case displeased Wayne County Indiana’s prosecuting attorney, Mr. Mike Shipman. So, he publicly vented his frustrations about the dropped case against the girl’s boyfriend, whom Shipman believed was guilty of murder. In doing so, Shipman criticized Dr. Czaja, the pathologist, and questioned the doctor’s motives for changing his analysis.
According to Czaja, Shipman’s public criticism wrecked his medical career; the doctors at his pathology group denied him a partnership; law enforcement officials called on him less frequently; in the end, Czaja had no other choice than to seek work out of state. He attributed his financial downturn to Shipman’s statements, and decided to sue the attorney.
Judge In The Case Says, “Nope. Not Defamation.”
The judge in the case, however, pretty much shut it down before it got started. Why? Because the plaintiff failed to demonstrate compelling evidence apropos of actual malice on the part of the defendant. In his own words, the judge reasoned:
“ [T]he court finds that as a matter of law that the Prosecutor is immune from prosecution for the remarks made in this case both to the press, the Coroner, and the Allen County Prosecutor. Consequently there is no genuine issue of material fact. The Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby granted. Case dismissed.”
Actual Malice Was A Major Factor In The Judge’s Decision
Since the 1960s, actual malice has been the standard for defamation cases involving public figures. In the simplest terms, actual malice is when a person knowingly lies with the intent to cause harm or acts with reckless disregard for the truth. Now, whether actual malice standards need to be satiated in a given case depends on whether or not the plaintiff is a public or private figure.
Whether You’re A Public Figure or Private Citizen Matters In A Defamation Lawsuit
You read that correctly: U.S. defamation law sets a different standard of justice for “public figures” and regular ole’ Janes and Joes. Now, before you unnecessarily awaken your inner conspiracy theorist, the distinction is not as ominous as it may seem at first read.
For starters, the legal definition of a “public figure” is very different from say, TMZ’s definition. In most cases, a public figure is any person related to an issue of public concern. As such, public figures can be both “short-term” and “limited.” In some jurisdictions, any person that works for the government or in the public school system is automatically considered a public figure.
Simply stated, Kelly Warner lawyers know defamation law like Wayne Gretzky knows hockey. If you have a slander or libel legal issue, contact us today so we can start fixing the problem.