Michigan: False Light

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

Michigan recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light when false information is spread about them that is humiliating. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in Michigan is similar to defamation. See, e.g., Morganroth v. Whitall, 411 N.W.2d 859, 863-64 (Mich. Ct. App. 1987). Both involve false statements that harm someone's public image. You can be sued for both defamation and false light for the same statements. However, a plaintiff can only obtain money for one or the other violation based on the same statements.

Elements of a False Light Claim

To win on a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant made statements that create unreasonable and highly objectionable publicity, attributing to the plaintiff characteristics, conduct or beliefs that are false, and that the defendant presented these statements to the public. Morganroth, 411 N.W.2d at 863-64. Each of these requirements is described in greater detail below:

Identification of Plaintiff

The statement in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. For example, criticizing all doctors will not allow any particular doctor to sue you.

Offensiveness

The statement must be "unreasonable and highly objectionable." Morganroth, 411 N.W.2d at 863-64 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E cmt. b). The material must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Early Detection Ctr., P.C. v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., 403 N.W.2d 830, 835 (Mich. Ct. App. 1986) (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.

Falsehood

A plaintiff must show that something false has been said about him or her. The falsehood could misrepresent the plaintiff's characteristics, conduct, or beliefs. If the publication is true, then the plaintiff cannot win. For instance, in Morganroth v. Whitall, a writer for the Detroit News published a story about a hairdresser, describing how she used the unusual technique of blowtorching her client's hair. 411 N.W.2d at 859-61. She sued and lost because the facts in the story describing her hairdressing method were true.

Public Disclosure

For a plaintiff to win, he or she must show that the defendant made the statement in question to the public in general or to a large number of people. Reed v. Ponton, 166 N.W.2d 629, 630 (Mich. Ct. App. Mich. 1968). For instance, the plaintiff in one case complained that being fired cast her in a false light, but she lost because she did not claim that the reasons for her firing had been publicized by her employer. Ledl v. Quik Pik Food Stores, Inc., 249 N.W.2d 529 (Mich. Ct. App. 1994).

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. Michigan courts have not yet stated what level of fault is required. Most states require that the plaintiff prove the defendant acted with "actual malice", at least when the matter discussed is one of public concern or the plaintiff is an important or prominent public figure. Other states merely require that the defendant was "negligent" in publishing the statement in question. 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.

For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Other defenses may be available, but Michigan courts have not yet said what they are.

 

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Last updated on July 30th, 2008

   
 
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