The “libel-proof plaintiff doctrine” is a defense to defamation, though one that has not been applied in in Florida.
What is the libel proof doctrine?
The underlying theory behind the libel-proof doctrine is that the plaintiff’s reputation is so tarnished it could not possibly be any more damaged. For example, in New York, if there is little or no harm to a plaintiff’s already low reputation, the otherwise defamatory statements are not actionable. Frydman v. Verschleiser, 172 F. Supp. 3d 653 (S.D. N.Y. 2016) (applying New York law).
What kind of person is ‘libel proof’?
One common application of the doctrine is where plaintiffs have criminal convictions. Courts in New York, Michigan, Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas, as well as other states have found such plaintiffs “libel-proof” as a matter of law.
For example, in a case in Michigan, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder sued a magazine publisher and others alleging that an article falsely stated that the prisoner had admitted guilt. The Court reasoned that, even if the statement as to his admission of guilt were untrue, it could not damage his reputation anymore than his current life sentence, except, possibly among his criminal associates in prison. Mattheis v. Hoyt, 136 F. Supp. 119 (W.D. Mich. 1955).
In another case, this one in Connecticut, a prisoner sued news entities who ran articles based on a press release issued by the FBI. Like in Mattheis, the court reasoned that the articles, which talked about the prisoner’s criminal exploits, could not have possibly damaged his reputation any more than it already was, except possibly among his criminal associates in prison. The court commented about the unfairness to the defendant news entities in having to expend so much in resources to defend an essentially meritless lawsuit. Urbano v. Sondern, 41 F.R.D. 355 (D. Conn. 1966), judgment summarily aff’d, 370 F.2d 13 (2d Cir. 1966) and judgment summarily aff’d, 370 F.2d 14 (2d Cir. 1966).
Florida has not applied the ‘libel-proof doctrine.’
Defamation law varies from state to state, and, while these other states have applied the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine, Florida has thus far not. See Green v. Cosby, 138 F. Supp. 3d 114 (D. Mass. 2015) (applying Florida law) (citing Klayman v. City Pages, 5:13–cv-143-Oc-22PRL, 2015 WL 1546173, at *17 n. 18 (M.D.Fla. Apr. 3, 2015).
Instead, Florida courts may rely on the standard elements of defamation.
Although the doctrine is not followed in Florida, the Florida Supreme Court has never expressly rejected it. Therefore, litigants may continue to raise it.
In a recent case in the Middle District of Florida, a defendant to a counterclaim argued that the counter-plaintiff was “libel–proof” because his reputation was “so bad nothing could damage his reputation any further.” Rather than analyze the libel-proof doctrine as a separate defense to defamation, however, the Court considered the argument as a contention for one of the necessary elements for defamation: damages.
Evidence of some actual injury, such as injury to reputation, personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering, is required for a plaintiff to recover for defamation. General damages are those which the law presumes must naturally, proximately and necessarily result from publication of the libel or slander. They are allowable whenever the immediate result is to impair the plaintiff’s reputation, although no actual pecuniary loss is demonstrated. These general damages concerning a plaintiff’s dignity, reputation, and emotional harm need not be proved.
Bernath v. Seavey, No. 2:15-CV-358-FTM-99CM, 2017 WL 3268481, at *7 (M.D. Fla. May 18, 2017) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
The Court found that the Counter-Plaintiff suffered injury to his reputation and image both online and in the community, as well as at his place of employment. In other words, he was not libel proof. The Court found that the other elements of defamation proven as well, and, accordingly, entered summary judgment in favor of the Counterclaimant.