Note: This page covers information specific to Pennsylvania. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.
Pennsylvania recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light when false information is spread about them that is offensive. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under Elements of a False Light Claim.
While false light in Pennsylvania is similar to defamation, there are several differences. First, statements need to be publicized more widely for false light than defamation. Second, defamation requires harm to reputation or other social consequences, while false light does not. Third, material must be offensive for false light, while it need not be for defamation.
Elements of a False Light Claim
To establish a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant (1) made statements about the plaintiff (2) to the public that are (3) offensive and (4) false. 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, falsely criticizing all doctors will not allow any particular doctor to sue you.
For a plaintiff to win, he or she must show that the defendant made the statement to the public. The statement must be made either to the public at large (e.g., over the Internet) or to so great a number of people that it is "substantially certain to become . . . public knowledge." Curran v. Children's Serv. Ctr. Inc., 578 A.2d 8, 12 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652D comm. a). In Curran, the plaintiff lost because a "pink slip" he personally received was not sufficient public disclosure for a false light claim.
The statement must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Larsen v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 543 A.2d 1181, 1188 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense. For instance, in Parano v. O'Connor, a court held that a plaintiff could not reasonably be offended by a newspaper article describing him as "uncooperative" and "adversarial." 641 A.2d 607, 608 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1994).
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.
A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. In Pennsylvania, the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "knowledge of" a statement's falsity or acted with "reckless disregard" of its falsity. Santillo v. Reedel, 634 A.2d 264 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993). In other words, to be liable for false light, the defendant must make a statement he knows is false or must be very careless as to whether the statement is true of false.
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. There is also an important common law protection that may be protect you when you comment on issues of public concern:
Under Pennsylvania law, the media is insulated from liability for false light when it reports on issues of public concern related to public officials. Neish v. Beaver Newspapers, Inc., 581 A.2d 619, 624-25 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990). Courts deem public officials as having "relinquish[ed] . . . insulation of scrutiny of [their] public affairs." Id.
What kinds of media are protected? Neish concerned a reporter for a traditional newspaper. If you work in a non-traditional media setting, an important question is whether the media protection described above will protect you. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania courts have not yet said how far the protection for media defendants will extend.