The District of Columbia recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light when a false and offensive statement is made about them to the public and causes them distress. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."
False light in the District of Columbia overlaps significantly with Defamation. In D.C., defamation and false light both protect against the same wrongs -- offensive false statements. The key difference between defamation and false light is that they protect against different harms flowing from such statements. "The false light . . . action differs from an action for defamation because a defamation tort redresses damage to reputation while a false light privacy tort redresses mental distress from having been exposed to public view." White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512, 518 (D.C. Cir. 1990). In other words, defamation protects a person's public reputation, while false light protects a person's internal mental tranquility.
Despite this difference in protected interests, "[t]here is a great deal of overlap between the causes of action for defamation and false light." Moldea v. New York Times Co.,15 F.3d 1137, 1151 (D.C. Cir. 1994). As the Moldea court noted, "[p]ublicity that is actionable in a false light claim generally will be actionable in defamation as well." Id. Courts often treat the two as analytically similar.
Because false light and defamation overlap so greatly, plaintiffs may only recover on one or the other theory concerning the same publication. Modea, 15 F.3d at 1151. The defenses, privileges, and burdens of proof that protect defendants in defamation cases are equally applicable to false light cases.
Because of the overlap between defamation and false light, you should review the section on District of Columbia Defamation Law as well.
Elements of a False Light Claim
If a plaintiff files a false light claim, he or she must show that there was
- public disclosure of
- a false statement, representation, or imputation
- about the plaintiff that
- would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
See Klayman v. Segal, 783 A.2d 607, 613 (D.C. 2002). Moreover, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is at fault.
The recent case of Benz v. Washington Newspaper Publ'g Co., 34 Media L. Rep. 2368 (D.D.C. 2006), illustrates how false light works in DC. In that case, a producer from CNN claimed that the Washington Enquirer had stated that she had been "been linked romantically with power players" and that she had "hooked up" with a "porn king." Id. at n.5. The court found that the newspaper's statements were "highly offensive."
First, in order to prove a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that something false was stated. The falsehood can be implied or directly stated. See White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512, 523 (D.C. Cir. 1990).
For the plaintiff to win, the statement must do more than state a false fact. The false fact stated must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." S. Air Transp., Inc. v. ABC,, 670 F. Suppp. 2d. 38, 42 (D.D.C. 1987) (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). It is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.
Identification of Plaintiff
The falsehood in question must identify the plaintiff somehow. The plaintiff does not need to be named, as long as he or she can be identified. See Lohrenz v. Donnelly, 223 F. Supp. 2d 25, 47-48 (D.D.C. 2002).
While District of Columbia courts require the false statement to be disclosed to the public, they have not ruled on what exactly that means. It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet for the whole world to see is public disclosure.
A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. If the defendant is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512, 524-25 (D.C. Cir. 1990)). At least one D.C. court has held that plaintiffs who are not public figures must merely show that defendants acted "negligently." See Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 512 F. Supp. 1285, 1288 (D.D.C. 1981). For more information on possible levels of fault, see the Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide.
Privileges and Defenses
If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.
No Suits by Corporations
False light in the District of Columbia compensates the plaintiff for mental distress and anguish. One federal district court in D.C. held that because corporations cannot be offended, they cannot sue for false light. See S. Air Transp., Inc. v. ABC, 670 F. Supp. 38, 42 (D.D.C. 1987).
A false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Opinions are constitutionally protected, and you will not be held liable under a false light claim for an opinion that offends others. Of course, distinguishing facts and opinions can be difficult. For more information on how courts distinguish between facts and opinions, see Opinion and Fair Comment Privileges, which discusses the issue in the context of defamation.
One court in D.C. has held that the fair comment privilege, which applies to defamation claims, also protects defendants in false light claims. In Lane v. Random House, Inc., 985 F. Supp. 141, 150 (D.D.C. 1995), the court described the privilege as protecting a writer when he offers his views on a situation where "the reader is aware of the factual foundation for" the author's statement. In such a situation, the reader can "judge independently whether the comment is reasonable." Id. The court noted that "the fair comment privilege can be invoked even if the underlying facts are not included with the comment." Id.