Television Crime Program Reenactment Leads to Defamation, False Light Lawsuit – Butler v. Discovery Communications

A television reenactment of a bombing, in which a man suffered severe injury and his friend lost his life, did not give rise to claims for false light invasion of privacy or defamation, according to an Illinois federal court. Butler v. Discovery Communications, LLC, No. 12 cv 6719, mem. op. (N.D. Ill., May 9, 2013). The court found that the reenactment’s portrayal of the plaintiff, while different from the plaintiff’s account of the incident, did not portray the plaintiff in an offensive or damaging fashion, nor did it harm the plaintiff’s reputation in a manner constituting defamation.

The defendant, Discovery Communications, broadcast an episode of its show “Wicked Attraction” on June 15 and July 7, 2012, about an incident involving the plaintiff, Alphonso Butler, that occurred on February 15, 2000. Butler was with his “best friend,” Marcus Toney, that night, when Toney received a package from his estranged wife. Id. at 1. According to Butler, Toney asked him to open the package, but then stepped between Butler and the package and opened it himself. The package contained a pipe bomb that exploded when Toney opened the box. The blast killed Toney and injured Butler. Toney’s wife and her boyfriend are in prison for his murder.

The “Wicked Attraction” episode, titled “Lust for Life,” included a reenactment of the events prior to the explosion, allegedly showing Butler “goading Mr. Toney into opening the package.” Id. at 2. Butler claimed that this suggested that he “contribut[ed] to [Toney’s] death.” Id. He sued Discovery for false light, defamation per se, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Discovery filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss all claims, which the court granted.

The court identified three elements in a claim for false light invasion of privacy. The plaintiff must show that the defendant placed him in a “false light” before the public; that the false light would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person;” and that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” meaning knowledge of or “reckless disregard” towards the statement’s falsity. Id. at 3 (internal citations omitted). Butler claimed that, because the episode portrayed Toney as “reluctant” to open the box, its portrayal of Butler’s encouragement made him look like “the direct impetus to his best friend’s death.” Id. at 4. The court disagreed, finding that the episode did not suggest that Butler had any knowledge of the box’s contents, and that therefore any encouragement offered to Toney was “benign.” Id. It held that the portrayal of Butler in the episode was not “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” Id.

Butler’s defamation per se claim was unsupportable for similar reasons, the court held. Defamation per se involves a statement that is obviously defamatory on its face. The court found that no reasonable interpretation of the episode’s portrayal of Butler would support a conclusion that he was in any way culpable in Toney’s death. As a result, the episode did not damage Butler’s reputation in a way that would give rise to a defamation claim.

At Lubin Austermuehle, our defamation attorneys have extensive experience representing businesses and consumers in slander, libel, and false light lawsuits. We practice throughout the greater Chicago area, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Our clients include plaintiffs who have suffered harm from unlawful defamation, and defendants facing allegations of defamation by competitors or others. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online, at (630) 333-0333.

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