Elements of Tennessee Claim for Defamation by Implication

In order to succeed on a defamation by implication claim in Tennessee, a plaintiff must be able to show that the statements made implied facts that were not true and held the plaintiff “up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, “ or lowered the plaintiff “in the eyes of the community.” Where these showings cannot be made, a claim for defamation by implication or innuendo must fail.

In Loftis v. Rayburn, No. M2017-01502-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 20, 2018), plaintiff was the previous director of the Nashville State Community College culinary program. He brought suit based on an article published in a newspaper, which was based on an interview between the reporter writing the story and defendant. Defendant was a local restaurant owner who was brought on to help make the college program more successful. The article stated that when defendant began his work, the program was “simply turning out unqualified students,” and that he enlisted other chefs to help turn the program around. The article said that “[t]hey started by cleaning house from the top by removing director Tom Loftis [i.e., plaintiff].” The article further noted that this was a “politically inexpedient move last year since Loftis was the brother-in-law of Bill Freeman who was running for mayor at the time.” This was the only mention of plaintiff in the article.

Plaintiff filed suit for defamation by implication or innuendo and false light invasion of privacy based on the article. Upon defendant’s motion, the trial court dismissed the complaint, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

To prove a defamation by implication or innuendo claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant “published the statements and that the meaning reasonably conveyed by the statements was defamatory.” Here, plaintiff was not arguing about the literal truth of the published statements, but instead asserted that they implied that “he personally was to blame for the unqualified line cooks in Nashville.” The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that the article did “not impugn [plaintiff] personally,” and that the article could not reasonably be read as “depicting [plaintiff] as personally responsible for the perceived deficiencies of the culinary program.” The Court held that “as a matter of law the statements in [the] article cannot reasonably be construed as implying facts that are not true, as they must to qualify as defamatory by implication or innuendo,” and also that the statements could not be interpreted to hold plaintiff “up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule,” or to “lower[ ] him in the eyes of the community.” Accordingly, dismissal of the defamation claim was affirmed.

Similarly, a false light invasion of privacy claim requires a plaintiff to show that the “false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” For the same reasons that the defamation claim failed, the Court of Appeals held that the statements in the article were “not susceptible to the requisite inferences casting [plaintiff] in a false light,” and that “a reasonable person would [not] be justified, in the eyes of the community, of being seriously offended and aggrieved by the statements at issue.” Dismissal of the false light claims was thus affirmed as well.

Here, the facts simply weren’t strong enough to support a defamation or false light case. While the article at issue mentioned plaintiff, it did so towards the end and in a very limited capacity, and it did not meet the required elements of the claims asserted by plaintiff.