Colo. Supreme Court rejects ‘false-light’ claim

COLORADO ‘ Journalists in Colorado gained more protection against lawsuits resulting from mistakes in reporting.

In a 4-3 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court Sept. 16, Colorado became the fourth state to completely reject ‘false light’ invasion of privacy lawsuits. Those seeking reparations for false statements published by the media and others must now sue for libel under the more stringent defamation standard.

Justice Rebecca Kourlis, writing for the majority, rejected the false light tort because ‘its highly duplicative of defamation both in interests protected and conduct averted.’ A false light legal claim would raise ‘chilling effects on the First Amendment freedoms,’ she added.

The false light claim, which is recognized in 30 states, can arise anytime one unflatteringly portrays, in words or pictures, a person as something that he or she is not. While lumped together with other invasion of privacy suits, it is really more like a libel claim. Both involve complaints based on a false report. The major difference between the two is that a libel complaint requires that the statement in question ‘defames,’ or injures a person’s reputation. A statement in a false light claim, on the other hand, need only be ‘highly offensive’ to a reasonable person.

Publishing offensive material is more difficult to avoid, the court said, than publishing false information that damages a person’s reputation in the community. Media organizations would have to anticipate whether or not material is highly offensive to a reasonable person under ‘false light.’

The court’s decision stems from a 1994 story published by The Rocky Mountain News headlined ‘Denver’s Biggest Crime Family.’ The story reported about a family of 18, of which 15 had criminal arrest records.

Eddie Bueno, the oldest of the Bueno children had no criminal record and, according to him, no contact with his family since moving out of his parent’s home at the age of 13. He believed the story implied such criminal history, according to court records.

Although this decision overturns his $106,507 award for damages from a May 1997 trial, Bueno is now awaiting a ruling from the state appellate court establishing whether he can pursue a libel claim.

Denver Publishing Co. v. Bueno, 54 P.3d 893 (Colo. 2002)