Public safety employees, particularly law enforcement officers, face almost insurmountable obstacles in suing for defamation of character. Various court-created rules, including the “opinion” and “public official” rules, routinely block lawsuits from ever getting to a jury. Precisely such a thing recently happened in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
Officer Sam Cromity works for the Louisville Metro Police Department. On March 18, 2011, Cromity cited Terry Meiners on the Watterson Expressway for operating his vehicle in excess of the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour.
Later that day, Meiners, a radio personality, discussed the incident on the air. Over multiple broadcasts, Meiners described the traffic stop, and claimed that he had not been speeding and thus was not deserving of a traffic ticket. He proceeded to describe Cromity as an “out and out liar,” a “troubled public servant,” and “delusional,” and later began calling Cromity “Black Car Barney” in a reference to the incompetent television character Barney Fife. Meiners referred to Cromity as a “creative writer” and implied that Cromity had fabricated the speeding allegations, questioning the propriety of Cromity’s conduct in issuing him a ticket. Meiners also accused Cromity of intimidation given the way Meiners described how Cromity approached his vehicle. Meiners was ultimately acquitted of the charge of going 75 mph in a 55 mph zone in a separate criminal proceeding.
Cromity sued Meiners for defamation of character. When a trial court ruled in Meiners’ favor, Cromity appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
The Court upheld the rejection of Cromity’s lawsuit. The Court noted that “the only disputed factual statement at issue is Meiners’ contention that he was not speeding when Cromity pulled him over. We do not believe that this statement is provable as false. There seems to be no definitive proof as to whether Meiners was exceeding the speed limit on the day in question. The only evidence available is Meiners’ word against Cromity’s. Thus we find no means of definitively proving Meiners’ statement either true or false.
“In addition, Meiners has since been acquitted of the charge of going 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. While we agree with Cromity that this acquittal is not definitive proof of the truth of Meiners’ claim that he was not speeding, it certainly does not weigh in Cromity’s favor. Disparaging statements that are not so definite or precise as to be branded false cannot support an action for defamation. Since the factual assertions underlying Meiners’ opinions expressed during his broadcasts are not provable as false, and meet other requirements of protected opinion speech, they are constitutionally protected.
“Moreover, a statement of opinion relating to matters of public concern which does not contain a provably false factual connotation will receive full constitutional protection. We agree with the trial court’s finding that Meiners’ statements addressed an issue of public concern, specifically, the integrity of a local police officer. Since Meiners fully disclosed the facts supporting his opinion, and those facts are not provable as false, Meiners’ opinions are constitutionally protected.”
Cromity v. Meiners, 2015 WL 5634420 (Ky. App. 2015).
Editor’s Note: Because the case was dismissed on “summary judgment,” the Court necessarily ruled that no reasonable jury could conclude that Meiners defamed Cromity. Implicit in that holding is that a jury should not even have the opportunity to evaluate the credibility of the officer in a one-on-one case, and that it is enough to dismiss the defamation lawsuit if the other party has a remotely credible position.
The above article has appeared in a previous issue of Public Safety Labor News and has been reprinted courtesy of Labor Relations Information System. These articles are for informational purposes only.