Pensacola News Journal faces possible insolvency if the Florida Supreme Court upholds an $18 million judgment against it for publishing true facts in a false light case. At issue is the inclusion of true facts about how Joe Anderson, the owner of one of the state’s largest paving companies, killed his wife. The inclusion of those facts in a series on the paving company was viewed as actionable false light — an allegation that a Florida jury accepted.
Anderson admitted that the facts about his killing his wife shortly after he filed for divorce were true but insisted that they were placed in the story in a false way.
The Petitioner’s brief lays out the issue:
The lawsuit was prompted by a series of articles published between December 13, 1998 and July 12, 2000, which concerned work done in Escambia County by Anderson’s road paving company, Anderson Columbia, Inc. The only claim that went to trial was Anderson’s false light claim based on the Pensacola News Journal’s December 14, 1998 story headlined “Company pursues political clout” and inside page headline
“Anderson Columbia keeps eye on state, local politician.” . . . The article contained these three paragraphs in the midst of the “political clout” story:
In 1988, while still on probation and
before his conviction was reversed,
Anderson shot and killed his wife, Ira
Anderson with a 12-gauge shotgun.
The death occurred in Dixie County
just north of Suwanee where days before the
shooting Joe Anderson had filed for divorce
but then had the case dismissed.
Law enforcement officials determined
the shooting was a hunting accident.
The story continued.
A federal judge ruled that by having
the shotgun, Anderson violated his
probation, and the judge added two years to
Capt. Bob Stanley of the Florida
Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission,
was one of the officials who went to the
scene of the shooting.
Anderson said that he and his wife
were deer hunting when she walked one way
down a road and he walked the other way,
Stanley recalls. A deer ran between them
and Joe Anderson fired twice. One shot hit
the deer, the other hit his wife.
“One buckshot pellet hit her under the
arm and went through her heart,” Stanley
When investigators arrived on the
scene, he said, they found that the other
people in the hunting party had taken the
deer back to the hunt club and were cleaning
“You have to understand, it’s Dixie
County,” he said. “Back then, they shut
down the schools for the first week of
He said that Anderson had stayed
behind at the shooting scene, and he
described Anderson as looking “visibly
upset” after the shooting.
Anderson stipulated that the facts set forth in the story were literally true.
In the oral argument, Justice Charles T. Wells expressed concern: “If you can sue somebody for making a true statement, it seems that would be a great impediment to free speech and freedom of the press.”
Of course, false light cases are often based on true facts or they would be brought in defamation.
The tort is defined in Restatement (Second) of Torts, Sec. 652E as:
(1) the portrayal must be found to be “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and
(2) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.