Where defendant shared truthful information that was a matter of public record “concerning a matter of public significance,” summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims for intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy was affirmed.
In Adreacchio v. Hamilton, No. M2021-01021-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 2718659 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 13, 2022), plaintiffs’ son died and the local police department ruled the death a suicide. Plaintiffs believed the death was actually a homicide, and they went on a podcast and television series to discuss the death and investigation. Defendant was a private citizen who agreed with investigators that the death was a suicide, and he created a Facebook page “to counter plaintiffs’ assertions.” In the context of countering plaintiffs’ assertion that the death was a homicide, defendant shared autopsy photographs of the son as well as some of his text messages, both of which were public records released by the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office.
Plaintiffs filed this suit against defendant, asserting claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, publicity given to private facts, and derivative claims of negligent entrustment/ respondeat superior. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, ruling that defendant shared truthful information from public records about a matter of public concern and thus could not be liable. On appeal, this ruling was affirmed.
Plaintiffs admitted that the photos and test messages shared by defendant were truthful, were not altered, and were matters of public record. On appeal, plaintiffs attempted to rely on Tennessee’s Post-Mortem Examination Act to support their argument that the distribution of the autopsy photos was not protected speech under the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions. Plaintiffs, however, did not bring up any argument regarding the Post-Mortem Examination Act in the trial court, so the Court of Appeals refused to consider such argument on appeal.
Plaintiffs next attempted to rely on a case from Washington to support the assertion that defendant’s distribution of the photos was outrageous. The Court quickly pointed out, however, that this case was not controlling law in Tennessee and that it was factually distinguishable from the case at hand.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that summary judgment was appropriate here:
[W]e conclude that the jurisprudence protecting the sharing of truthful information regarding matters of public significance…is more instructive to the appeal at bar than [the Washington case]… As Plaintiffs themselves acknowledged, the investigation into [the son’s] death is a matter of public concern. Indeed, whether the official investigation [the son’s] death was mishandled, as Plaintiffs have argued, is a matter of public significance. Plaintiffs have publicly expressed their views on the matter, as is their right. Defendant has publicly expressed a contrary view, as is his right. This is the sort of ‘free communication of thoughts and opinions’ protected by Article 1, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution. It was within this context that Defendant is alleged to have distributed [the son’s] autopsy photographs online. There is no hint in the record that Defendant obtained these photographs by unlawful means. On the contrary, they were public records obtained through the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. Further, there is no suggestion that the photographs were altered or manipulated in any way. Defendant thus is alleged to have disseminated truthful information—public records from a sister state, no less—concerning a matter of public significance. Without more, this activity cannot be deemed ‘outrageous’ in the legal sense. Rather, it is free expression. …Under Fann and, more crucially, the First Amendment and Article 1, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution, Defendant cannot be held liable for sharing truthful information, here public records, concerning the investigation into [the son’s] death, a matter of public significance. That the truthful information concerning this matter of public significance is of a deeply sensitive nature neither makes the information any less truthful nor makes the matter any less publicly significant.
Summary judgment was therefore affirmed.
This case is an important read for anyone litigating a tort case involving a matter of public concern. Here, both emotional distress and invasion of privacy claims failed because liability could not be based on defendant’s sharing of truthful information about a matter of public concern. This is new law in Tennessee.
This opinion was released two months after this case was assigned on briefs.
Note: Chapter 56, Section 1 and Chapter 61, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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