(Defamation) Court fails to instruct jury that hospital had to prove union mailed defamatory postcards to hospital’s prospective clients with actual malice

(Defamation) Court fails to instruct jury that hospital had to prove union mailed defamatory postcards to hospital’s prospective clients with actual malice.  Sutter Health v. Unite Here, (No. C054400 California Courts of Appeal, Third Appellate District July 21, 2010)

Defendant, a collective bargaining representative for workers employed at commercial laundry facilities complained that the facility owner did not maintain a sanitary workplace.  The defendant mailed postcards to third parties warning them that the hospital used linens cleaned by a company that failed to insure the linens would be free of blood and feces.  Plaintiff hospital sued for defamation, libel and intentional interference with prospective economic relations.  The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded  it millions of dollars.  The defendant argued the trial court should have instructed the jury that plaintiff needed to prove the defendant made the defamatory publication with actual malice. 

The Appeals Court reversed and remanded the case.  It found that if a plaintiff seeks state remedies for defamatory labor dispute publications, it must prove the defamatory publication was made with actual malice.  The rule encompasses publications directed to “at secondary targets” which are entities using the services of another company that is engaged in a labor dispute with a union.  Here, the trial court told the jury that the defendant could be liable if it failed to use reasonable care in determining the truth or falsity of the publication.  Given that the plaintiff needed to prove actual malice, the trial court erred in giving that instruction and therefore the Appeals Court reversed.

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