A news agency publishes news articles on its website. The website can be accessed freely by anyone who has access to the internet. At least 2,000,000 people view the website each day.
The agency posts a story on the website’s home page about a recent incident on a commercial airline flight. The story was written by a reporter, who is employed by the agency. The story claims that a passenger, X, became unruly during the flight, and had to be physically subdued by a flight attendant, Y, and another passenger, Z.
The story includes a sentence that says:
“Y filled Z’s order for a glass of wine. Immediately, Y heard a stream of angry words coming from X, who believed that Y had deliberately refused to serve him any beverages.”
The statement that Z ordered wine is incorrect. The reporter included this statement after interviewing two passengers who sat near Z, and who erroneously recalled seeing Z order wine. Z belongs to a religion that prohibits alcohol consumption. Adherents of this religion, including Z, regard those who drink alcohol as immoral and disreputable.
The story goes on to state that X stood up and pushed Y. Then, according to the story, Y and Z physically forced X to sit back down.
The story also states that X had been convicted of armed robbery seven years before the airplane incident. This statement is true. The reporter was able to find X’s prior conviction by searching the physical records of the Department of Corrections in X’s home state. The information was difficult to find, but the records were open to the general public.
In addition, the story says that the year before the incident, Y was suspended from work after violating company policy by having a romantic relationship with one of the airline’s pilots. This statement is also true. Both Y and the pilot were unmarried at the time, and the relationship was entirely consensual. Nonetheless, the airline’s employment policies prohibit such relationships. The relationship was not generally known within the airline, and the airline treats the relevant personnel records as confidential. The reporter learned about the relationship through an anonymous source in the airline’s personnel department, who disclosed the information in violation of the airline’s confidentiality policies.
The law of the relevant jurisdiction recognizes the tort of public disclosure of private facts, as well as the tort of false light. The applicable law follows the actual malice standard in all false light cases.
X, Y, and Z each file suit against the news agency. Assume that the news agency is vicariously liable for the reporter’s actions. X seeks to recover for public disclosure of private facts, based on the statement about X’s prior criminal conviction. Y also seeks to recover for public disclosure of private facts, based on the statement about Y’s relationship with the pilot and Y’s suspension. Z seeks to recover for false light, based on the statement that Z ordered wine on the flight.
- Should X prevail on the claim of public disclosure of private facts? Explain.
- Should Y prevail on the claim of public disclosure of private facts? Explain.
- Should Z prevail on the claim of false light? Explain.