TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – The New Jersey Supreme Court has ended a defamation lawsuit by mandating that the fair reporting privilege applied to a website that ranks America's bosses.
In the case of Petro-Lubricant Testing Laboratories Inc. v. Asher Adelman, the court on May 7 stipulated “legitimate court filings are protected by the First Amendment through the fair reporting privilege.”
Back in 2010, Adelman launched the website eBossWatch, where visitors to the site were allowed to rate their bosses for potential job candidates. The site also allowed visitors to rank “America’s Worst Bosses,” a list that named Petro-Lubricant founder and CEO John Wintermute at the No. 39 spot in 2010.
In an article titled “Bizarre and hostile work environment leads to lawsuit,” eBossWatch.com detailed former Petro-Lubricant employee Kristin Laforgia's lawsuit that cited allegations that Wintermute exposed her and others to a hostile work environment. She also alleged she was terminated in retaliation.
While her suit for wrongful termination was settled, an attorney for Petro-Lubricant contacted Adelman roughly a year after the article was published, threatening legal action if the story and Wintermute's name on the Worst Bosses List were not removed from the website.
Adelman countered that the article was based on the original complaint, even though the site changed the title of the article to “Hostile work environment lawsuit filed against Petro-Lubricant Testing Laboratories,” the opinion states.
The defamation suit against Adelman was formally filed in June 2012, with his original summary judgment motion being granted by Sussex County Superior on the grounds that the single publication rule did not apply.
Later, the Appellate Division upheld that verdict, adding that “if a minor modification diminishes the defamatory sting of an article, it should not trigger a new statute of limitations,” the opinion states.
In rendering its verdict, the Supreme Court ruling stipulated, “We agree that the beneficent purpose of the single publication rule applies as strongly to the internet as it does to traditional media. Books, magazines and movies remain in libraries and homes, where they are continuously available to new viewers for unlimited periods. Articles attached to a website stand in a similar position.”
In establishing that the article is protected under the fair reporting privilege, Justice Barry Albin added “the right of citizens to have transparency in government and court proceedings is one of the basic pillars undergirding the fair report privilege. ... The modified article is protected by the fair report privilege because the article is a full, fair and accurate recitation of a court-filed complaint.”
“We find that the Appellate Division erred in granting summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds because a genuine issue of fact was in dispute concerning whether a republication occurred,” the court asserted.