Are you protected: a loss scenario from Sinead Murphy

This is the first in a series of “loss scenarios” provided by Sinead Murphy of Hiscox. Learn more at Book Publisher Northwest’s  June 18 meeting.

Defamation

Factual background

Two authors write a 700-page book entitled “A Guide to Cults and Fringe Religions,” which is published and distributed by a mid-sized publisher of religious-oriented texts. The book contains a 16-page introduction and 57 chapters, each devoted to a different religious group.

Litigation proceedings

One of the groups – which is the subject of a two-page chapter and is mentioned in three other places in the book (once in a chart along with 15 other groups, once in a footnote, and once in an appendix list of 50 religious groups) – sues the authors and the publishers for defamation, contending that the book labels it as a “cult” and that this description has damaged its reputation in the community. Following a ten-month discovery period, the authors and the publishing house move for summary judgment on the grounds that the statements in the book and any resulting implications are incapable of defamatory meaning, that the church is a public figure and cannot prove actual malice, and that the statements are protected by the First Amendment.

Outcome

The trial court denies the motion, but permits an immediate appeal. The appellate court reverses and orders that summary judgment be entered for the publisher and authors because determining the truth or falsity of the church’s status as a “cult” would run afoul of constitutional proscriptions on state involvement in religious affairs and because statements in the book’s introduction describing criminal characteristics of cults are not “of and concerning” the plaintiff group.

Costs

The total cost of litigating this case for the book authors and publisher would be expected to be in the range of $650,000.