Georgia: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Georgia. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

Georgia recognizes the tort of "false light."  Plaintiffs can sue for false light when false information is spread about them that depicts them in an untruthful and highly offensive manner. The specific things a plaintiff must prove to establish false light are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in Georgia is essentially the same as defamation. No reported decision in Georgia state courts has found a defendant liable for false light without also finding the defendant liable for defamation. But see Maples v. Nat'l Enquirer, 763 F. Supp. 1137, 1141 (N.D. Ga. 1990) (finding that under Georgia law, statements can constitute false light without being defamatory). Georgia courts readily acknowledge that "[t]he interest protected [by the tort of false light] is clearly that of reputation, with the same overtones of mental distress as in defamation." Association Servs. v. Smith, 549 S.E.2d 454, 459 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001).

What the overlap means is that if you are sued for false light, you will probably also be sued for defamation (and vice versa). If you are concerned about false light, you should also review Georgia Defamation Law. Notably, "absolute privileges" that completely shield someone from liability for defamation also apply to claims for false light. See Rothstein v. L.F. Still & Co., 351 S.E.2d 513, 514-15 (Ga. Ct. App. 1986).

Elements of a False Light Claim

To establish a claim of false light in Georgia, a plaintiff must establish the existence of false publicity that depicts the plaintiff as something or someone which she is not. Next, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the false light in which she was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. Association Servs., 351 S.E.2d at 459.

Falsehood

First, in order to prove a false light claim, the plaintiff must show that he or she has been depicted as something he or she is not. In other words, the plaintiff must show that a falsehood about him or her was stated. True statements cannot form the basis of a lawsuit.

Offensiveness

For the plaintiff to win, the statement must do more than create a false impression. The false impression that is created must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Brewer v. Rogers, 439 S.E.2d 77, 83 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993) (quoting, via other cases, Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E). Georgia courts emphasize that they do not protect "hypersensitive" people. Thomason v. Times-Journal, Inc., 379 S.E.2d 551, 604 (1989) (finding no liability for the wrong name being accidentally used in an obituary).

Identification of Plaintiff

The falsehood in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. See, e.g., Collins v. Creative Loafing Savannah, Inc., 592 S.E.2d 170 (Ga. Ct. App. 2003).

Public Disclosure

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant publicly disclosed the falsehood concerning them. While this basic requirement is clear, it can be difficult to determine in particular situations whether telling a limited number of people in a certain setting constitutes "the public." It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet is public disclosure.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant's fault caused the false implication. If the defendant is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See Brewer v. Rogers, 439 S.E.2d 77 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993). In most other situations, courts require the plaintiff merely to show that the defendant has been "negligent." For more information on possible levels of fault in claims for published falsehoods, see the section on Actual Malice and Negligence.

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.

Opinion

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 a negative opinion. See S&W Seafoods Co. v. Jacor Broad., 390 S.E.2d 228 (Ga. Ct. App. 1989). 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.

Issues of Public Concern

Georgia courts have held that you cannot be sued for false light when you comment on an issue of public interest. See Wilson v. Thurman, 445 S.E.2d 811 (Ga. Ct. App. 1994) (finding that defendant police officers could not be held liable for false light after allegedly wrongfully investigating plaintiff for and charging him with sodomy (at that time a crime in Georgia) because the investigation focused on a matter of public concern).

 

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Last updated on July 30th, 2008

   
 
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