A defamer's guide to 'Dirtbag v. Dirtbag'

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What does it really take to slander or libel someone? The law of defamation can be complex, but a New York state court recently tried to sort out this weighty issue: What is a "dirtbag," and is the term defamatory?

The issue arose after a man named William Schumacher penned comments that another man, John Acheson, was "the biggest dirtbag" he had ever met in his life. Acheson sued Schumacher before Westchester City Court in what, amusingly, could become a seminal case of black letter law. Apparently, no other U.S. court has ever issued a reported decision on the issue of whether it is defamatory to call someone a "dirtbag."

Citing a New York precedent, the court in Acheson v. Schumacher said libel or defamation was "a writing or broadcast that tends to expose the plaintiff to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or disgrace." The court went on to cite the five proving elements of the tort, including the truth or falsity of the statement and whether the complaining party actually sustained damages.

Without offering any citation, the court defined "dirtbag" as "an informal term" meaning "a dirty, grimy, sleazy, or disreputable person." The court went on to explain various possible meanings for Mr. Schumacher's allegedly defamatory statement. Did Schumacher mean that Acheson was the physically largest of the dirtbags he had known? Or perhaps just one of the most powerful? The court surmised also that Schumacher may have believed Acheson to be "just a tad worse" than the other dirtbags he had known.

The point the court was making was that -- in any case -- these statements would all be opinions. Citing the case of Gilliam v. Richard M. Greenspan, P.C., the court held that statements of opinion are not defamatory. (In Gilliam, one lawyer penned a nastygram, saying unflattering things about another lawyer. The court held it was opinion and threw out the case.)

But don't take these court decisions as a license to spew any insult you please. In Lund v. Chicago and Northwest Transp. Co., a Minnesota appellate court held that certain epithets -- in that case, the unfriendly word "s---head" -- used alone might be only "unactionable rhetorical hyperbole," but combined with other defamatory words or statements, such words could "take on actionable characteristics."

It also matters where and when insults are hurtled. In National Recruiters Inc. v. Cashman, the Minnesota Supreme Court found it slander when a plaintiff was called "a no-good loser; a no-good son of a bitch" in the context of an employment reference.

Other courts are more hostile toward such lawsuits. When ESPN posted a photo of daredevil Evel Knievel and his wife with the caption, "Evel Knievel proves you're never too old to be a pimp," the Knievels sued the network for defamation. They lost on the grounds that a reasonable person would not have taken the photo and caption to mean Evel was literally a pimp and Krystal his prostitute, despite their 29-year age difference and his rose-tinted glasses in the photo.

And Florida courts have held that even such insults as "cockroach" and "mega-scumbag" do not constitute defamation, nor do references to a woman's "poor feminine hygiene." Despite being "crude and indecent," such comments were considered permissible as "satirical hyperbole."

The bottom line is that you can freely call someone a dirtbag or a mega-scumbag, but be careful the next time you write a letter of recommendation. If you can't say something nice, at least don't say anything that will get you sued.

David Horrigan is a Washington attorney at the 451 Group and editorial director at courtweek.com. He can be reached at dhorrigan@courtweek.com.

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