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Florida Third DCA affirms dismissal of a defamation case against South Florida television station, finding that “substantial truth” doctrine shielded defendant from potential liability

On April 14, 2021, in Readon v. WPLG, LLC, et al., No. 3D20-340, the Florida Third DCA affirmed the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed by a Miami area pastor against a local television station, WPLG. The plaintiff’s complaint alleged defamation and defamation by implication against WPLG for reporting on certain business dealings between the plaintiff and members of the public. The Third DCA concluded that the plaintiff failed to allege any false statement that would affect the gist of the reports, actual malice in WPLG’s reporting, or a defamatory implication. The case was reviewed under the heightened standard applicable to public figures because the plaintiff asserted in his complaint that he was in fact a public figure. The Third DCA noted that as a public figure, the plaintiff was required to allege that WPLG’s reports contained statements that were (1) false; (2) defamatory; (3) damaging; and (4) that the publisher acted with actual malice, citing Don King Prods., Inc. v. Walt Disney Co., 40 So. 3d 40, 43 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010). The Third DCA determined that the only substantively false statement alleged by the plaintiff, a report by WPLG that the plaintiff had sent a photo of dead body to a federal prosecutor, failed as the basis for an actionable claim under the “substantial truth” doctrine, which holds that “a statement does not have to be perfectly accurate if the ‘gist’ or the ‘sting’ of the statement is true.” Smith v. Cuban Am. Nat’l Found., 731 So. 2d 702, 706 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999), quoting from Masson v. New Yorker Mag., 501 U.S. 496, 517 (1991). The Third DCA opined that the WPLG’s report was substantially true because the only error in the report was that the recipient of the photo was not a federal prosecutor at the time that he received the photo. The Third DCA additionally noted that the plaintiff had failed to alleged facts that could give rise to a reasonable inference of actual malice by the defendant. While the plaintiff argued that the defendant had failed to investigate and include all relevant facts in its reporting, the Third DCA noted that failure to investigate, without more, does not constitute actual malice, unless there are “obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of the informant or the accuracy of his reports, quoting from St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 732 (1968).