Missouri Defamation Law

Note: This page covers information specific to Missouri. For general information concerning defamation, see the Defamation section of this guide. 

Elements of Defamation

The elements of defamation in Missouri are:
1. publication
2. of a defamatory statement
3. that identifies the plaintiff
4. that is false
5. that is published with the requisite degree of fault, and
6. damages the plaintiff's reputation

Overcast v. Billings Mut. Ins. Co., 11 S.W.3d 62, 70 (Mo. 2000) (en banc). 

The publication requirement is simply the communication of defamatory matter to a third person. An exception to the publication requirement exists for slander actions in Missouri where a person who utters defamatory matters intends, or has reason to suppose, that in the ordinary course of events the matter will come to knowledge of some third person. Mauzy v. Mex. Sch. Dist., 878 F. Supp. 153, 157 (E.D. Mo. 1995), citing Neighbors v. Kirksville College, 694 S.W.2d 822, 824 (Mo. Ct. App. 1985). One who republishes defamatory facts is liable for that publication. Mortiz v. Kan. City Star Co., 258 S.W.2d 583 (Mo. 1953). There also is an important provision under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that may protect you if a third party - not you or your employee or someone acting under your direction - posts something on your blog or website that is defamatory. We cover this protection in more detail in the section on Publishing the Statements and Content of Others.

These elements of a defamation claim in Missouri are similar to the elements listed in the general Defamation section, with the following exceptions:

Defamation Per Se/Per Quod

The Missouri Supreme Court case of Nazeri v. Missouri Valley College, 860 S.W.2d 303 (Mo. 1993) (en banc) eliminates the defamation per se/per quod distinction. In that case, the court abandoned the classifications of defamation per se and per quod, holding that "plaintiffs need not concern themselves with whether the defamation was per se or per quod, nor with whether special damages exist, but must prove actual damages in all cases." Id. at 313. 

Defamatory Meaning 

By statute, it is actionable to publish falsely and maliciously, in any manner whatsoever, that any person has been guilty of fornication or adultery. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.110 (2011).

In 1993, a false allegation of homosexuality was held to be defamatory. Nazeri at 312. It is not clear whether this would still be actionable now.

In order to find that a publication is defamatory, it must "be unequivocally so" and the words "should be construed in their most innocent sense." Walker v. Kan. City Star Co., 406 S.W. 44, 51 (Mo. 1966). In Ampleman v. Schweppe, 972 S.W.2d 329 (Mo. Ct. App. 1998), the court stated that "if a statement is capable of two meanings (one defamatory and one nondefamatory), and can reasonably be construed in an innocent sense, the court must hold the statement nonactionable as a matter of law." Id. at 333.

Of and Concerning the Plaintiff

Even if the plaintiff is readily identifiable in a particular publication, the plaintiff cannot sue for defamation unless the libelous portion of the publication is directed at him. May v. Greater Kansas City Dental, 863 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993).  

Actual Malice

In order to recover for defamation, a public official/figure is required to show that the defendant acted with actual malice. Actual malice requires a showing that the libelous statements were published with actual knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard as to whether the statement as true or not. The Missouri Supreme Court has equated recklessness with disregard of the truth with subjective awareness of probable falsity. There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. Glover v. Herald Co. 549 S.W.2d 858, 862 (Mo. 1977) (en banc).

Application of the actual malice standard in defamation cases in Missouri is not limited to statements regarding public officials' performance of official acts. A public figure's private conduct is, in some cases, a matter of public concern. Westhouse v. Biondo, 990 S.W.2d 68 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999).

Missouri cases have applied constitutional fault principles to statements made by non-media defendants, as well as those made by media defendants. Ramacciotti v. Zinn, 550 S.W.2d 217, 224 (Mo. Ct. App. 1987); McQuoid v. Springfield Newspapers, Inc., 502 F. Supp 1050, 1054 n.3 (W.D. Mo. 1980). 

See the general page on actual malice and negligence for details on the standards and terminology mentioned in this subsection.

Private Figure Standard

In Missouri, a private figure must show libelous statements were published by a defendant "at fault." The Missouri Supreme Court has interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., as stating that the requisite degree of fault in a private figure defamation case is negligence. Overcast v. Billings Mut. Ins. Co., 11 S.W. 3d 62, 70 (Mo. 2000) (en banc). 

Damages 

In a ruling rejecting the distinction between defamation per se and per quod (see above), the Missouri Supreme Court seems to have abandoned the doctrine of presumed damages. Nazeri v. Misssouri Valley College, 860 S.W.2d 303, 313 (Mo. 1993) (en banc). "By allowing presumed damages for certain words but precluding actual damages for other words without the additional proof of special damages, we believe this rule of the past creates unjustifiable inequities for plaintiffs and defendants alike. We hold that in defamation cases the old rules of per se and per quod do not apply and plaintiff need only to plead and prove the unified defamation elements set out in MAI [i.e., the "Missouri Approved Instructions," the standard jury instructions used in Missouri courts] 23.01(1) and 23.01(2)." Nazeri at 313. See also Kenney v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 100 S.W.3d 809, 814 (Mo. 2003); Bauer v. Ribaudo, 975 S.W.2d 180, 182-83 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997).  

Recent Missouri legislation says that punitive damages in any tort case may not exceed $500,000 or five times the net amount of any judgement awarded to the plaintiff against the defendant, whichever is greater. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 510.265 (2011). 

The Missouri Supreme Court has held that a defamation plaintiff must prove impairment to reputation in order to recover any damages for defamation and that emotional distress alone will not suffice. Kenney v. Walmart Stores, Inc., 100 S.W.3d 809, 814 (Mo. 2003). 

Other Issues

Missouri has no criminal libel statute. 

Privileges and Defenses

Missouri courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation cases, including substantial truth, the wire service defense, the fair reportage privilege, and opinion and fair comment privileges.

Missouri has not adopted the neutral reportage doctrine officially, although some cases show some recognition of a more limited privilege. Englezos v. Newspress & Gazette Co. 981 S.W.2d 25, 32 (Mo. Ct. App. 1998). The Eighth Circuit has suggested adherence to the neutral reportage doctrine. Price v. Viking Penguin Inc., 881 F.2d 1426, 1434, 1444 (8th Cir. 1989).

Substantial Truth

At common law, truth was considered a complete defense to libel (i.e., the defendant would have the burden to prove truth). Mortiz v. Kan. City Star Co., 258 S.W.2d 583 (Mo. 1953); Bartulica v. Pasculdo, 411 F. Supp 392, 397 (W.D. Mo. 1976).

Now falsity must be proven by the plaintiff, at least in cases where the defendant is a member of the media. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767 (1986). "Under the controlling constiutional standards, public officials, public figures and private persons using media defendants [for libel] must establish that the defendant published a false statement of fact." Anton v. St. Louis Suburban Newspapers, Inc., 598 S.W.2d 493, 498 (Mo. Ct. App. 1980). 

Slight inaccuracies of expression are immaterial if the defamatory charge is true in substance. Brown v. Biggs, 569 S.W.2d 760, 762 (Mo. Ct. App. 1978).

Wire Service Defense

Missouri recognizes that a newspaper has the right to reply upon and to republish information obtained from "reputable and properly-regarded-as reliable news services" where (1) the matters republished are of public significance and occur many miles away and (2) the reporter did not act with actual malice. Walker v. Pulitzer Publ'g Co., 271 F.Supp. 364 (E.D. Mo. 1967), aff'd, 394 F.2d 800 (8th Cir. 1968). 

Fair Reportage Privilege

Missouri has adopted this privilege in the exact language provided in the Restatement of Torts (Second) § 611:

The publication of defamatory matter concerning another in a report or an official action or proceeding or of a meeting open to the public that deals with a matter of public concern is privileged if the report is accurate and complete or a fair abridgement of the occurrence reported.

"Actual malice" is irrelevant under the Section 611 privilege. The privilege fails only when the report is not a fair and accurate account of the proceedings. Williams v. Pulitzer Broad. Co., 706 S.W.2d 508, 511 (Mo. Ct. App. 1986).

Opinion

The Missouri Supreme Court, considering the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990),rejected a blanket defense for protected opinion and established instead the following test: 

"The test to be applied to ostensible 'opinion' is whether a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statement implies an assertion of objective fact. ...The issue of falsity relates to the defamatory facts implied by a statement -- in other words, whether the underlying statement about the plaintiff is demonstrably false... But neither 'imaginative expression' nor 'rhetorical hyperbole' is actionable as defamation."

Nazeri at 314 (citations omitted). Nevertheless, a Missouri appellate court has since held that generally any statement preceded by a phrase such as "it is my position" or "it is my belief" or other cautionary phrases are, as a matter of law, opinion. Pape v. Reither, 918 S.W.2d 376, 380 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996). "Put plainly, it is impossible to interpret statements preceded by such cautionary lanugage as positing a verifiable proposition, and verifiability is the crux of the fact/opinion distinction in defamation law."  Pape at 380-81. The Pape court also held that "[a] statement must be verifiable at the time it is issued in order to be one of fact." Id. at 381.

In State ex. rel. Diehl v. Kintz, 162 S.W.3d 152 (Mo. Ct. App. 2005), the Missouri Court of Appeals, while recognizing that the U.S. Supreme Court "has rejected the notion that there is a wholesale defamation exception for anything that might be labeled opinion" as a matter of federal constitutional law, held that "a statement may only suggest to the ordinary reader that the defendant disagrees with the plaintiff's conduct and used pejorative statements or vituperative language to express this disapproval. ... 'Courts should also examine the statements themselves to determine whether they are too imprecise.'" Id. at 155, quoting Henry v. Halliburton, 690 S.W.2d 775, 789 (Mo. 1985) (en banc).

See the general page on fair comment and opinion for details on the standards and terminology mentioned in this subsection.

Other Privileges

Missouri follows the "witness immunity" rule that witness statements made in litigation are absolutely privileged from defamation actions. Mershon v. Beasley, 994 F.2d 449, 454 (8th Cir. 1993).

There is also an "intra-corporate immunity" rule in Missouri where "communications between officers or employees of a corporation in the regular course of business, or between different offices of the same corporation" are not publications for defamation purposes. Hellesen v. Knaus Truck Lines, Inc., 370 S.W.2d 341, 344 (Mo. 1963); see also Perez v. Boatmen's Nat'l Bank of St. Louis, 788 S.W.2d 296, 300 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990). Communication by a corporation's officers or supervisors to non-supervisory employees constitute a publication for purposes of a defamation. Snodgrass v. Headco Indus. Inc., 640 S.W.2d 147 (Mo. Ct. App. 1982). However the intra-corporate immunity rule does not appear to be applicable to communications outside of the corporate context, for example partnerships.

 

Statute of Limitations for Defamation

An action for libel or slander that is first published in Missouri must be commenced within two years. Mo. Rev. State § 516.140 (2011).
 

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Last updated on June 21st, 2012

   
 
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