Many employers will not hire an employee if it is known that the employee has filed for bankruptcy or is suffering from debt. This can then harm the employee’s ability to make money in order to escape her debt.
This allegedly happened with the famous basketball player, Scottie Pippin. Since his retirement from playing basketball in 2004, Pippin has lost a large portion of his fortune through bad investments. As a result, he has filed multiple lawsuits against some of his former financial and legal advisors, whom he feels misled him. When the media heard of Pippin’s financial problems, several news organizations reported that the basketball star had filed for bankruptcy, which is not true.
Pippin then filed a lawsuit against some of these news organizations for defamation, alleging that the reports have had a negative impact on his ability to acquire product endorsements and personal appearances.
The Northern District of Illinois, in which the suit was initially filed, dismissed the case, stating that the complaint contained falsehoods which did not fit into any category of statements which are recognized by Illinois law as being so innately harmful that damages can be assumed.
Because Scottie Pippin is a public figure, he bears a heavier burden of proof in order to file a claim for defamation than a private citizen would. This is because public figures have greater access to the media through which they can refute defamatory statements. Private citizens are less likely to have the same level of access, thereby rendering defamation innately more harmful to a private citizen than to a public figure.
The court also found insufficient evidence that the statements had been published with actual malice, rather than ignorance. Because Pippin is a public figure, he needed to prove that the false statements were a product of actual malice in order to file claims. In order to qualify for actual malice, the defendant must have known that the statement was false and published it anyway. When a media outlet fails to confirm that a statement is false, a plaintiff might be able to sue them for negligence, but not actual malice. Although Pippin alerted the defendants to the falsity of their statements after publication, it was not enough to prove that actual malice existed at the time that the statement was published.
Additionally, cases of defamation in the state of Illinois are subject to the Single Publication Act, which provides that a claim for defamation is complete after the first publication. The Act was put in place to protect speakers and writers from facing multiple lawsuits regarding a single statement which was mass-produced.
Pippin argued that the Single Publication Act does not apply to material posted on the Internet. This, according to Pippin, is because those who publish on the Internet, as the defendants in this lawsuit did, can more easily post and delete material. Therefore, Pippin argued that every day that the defamatory material remains on the website after the publisher knows that it is false constitutes a republication of the material.
The Single Publication Act does not deal directly with statements published online, so the court was forced to infer from decisions made in similar cases in other courts. Based on these past decisions, the court ruled that the Single Publication Act does apply to material published on the Internet. As a result, the news organizations can only be held responsible for the first publication of the defamatory statement.