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A Better Partnership
December 04, 2016

Court of Appeals clarifies that not all false accusations of criminal behavior will constitute defamation per se

Despite a series of inconsistent opinions throughout the years, in Lakin v Rund, No. 323695, the Court of Appeals adhered to Taylor v Kneeland, 1 Doug 67, 72 (1843), in clarifying what types of crimes were actionable in a defamation per se action.  The Court concluded that a false accusation of simple battery would only constitute defamation per se if the crime of battery subjects a plaintiff to an “infamous punishment,” which the Court concluded it did not.
 
After a heated exchange with Sanford N. Lakin, the defendant, Sister Barbara Rund, alleged to the church’s priest that Lakin “put a finger” on her chest during the exchange.  On remand from the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals first concluded that this statement imputed to Lakin the criminal offense of battery.  Next, the Court of Appeals had to consider whether the publication of the false and defamatory statement imputing the crime of battery was actionable irrespective of harm.
 
The Court of Appeals reviewed the inconsistencies of prior opinions, including Taylor, and acknowledged that it is bound to follow decisions of the Supreme Court except where those decisions have clearly been overruled or superseded.  It further acknowledged that is not authorized to anticipatorily ignore the decisions of the Supreme Court where it determines that the foundations of a Supreme Court decision have been undermined.  As such, because Taylor was never overruled, its precedent “that words charging an individual with a crime only constitute defamation per se if the crime involves moral turpitude or would subject the person to an infamous punishment” stands.
 
Adhering to the precedent in Taylor, the Court of Appeals endeavored to define “moral turpitude.”  In doing so, the Court conformed to the definition common among the majority of jurisdictions that “neither a simple assault nor a criminal battery involves moral turpitude.” The Court of Appeals determined that an “infamous punishment” was analogous to a felony.  Because the crime of battery was not a crime of moral turpitude, and the punishment for battery would not be considered “infamous,” a false accusation of battery does not constitute defamation per se.
 
 

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