In a unanimous opinion issued on March 27, 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling dismissing, in full, a defamation case filed by convicted felon Michael Benanti against the Knoxville News Sentinel and reporter Jamie Satterfield. Benanti had alleged that the defendants defamed him by falsely reporting that the FBI suspected Benanti of committing additional crimes beyond those with which he had been charged, including murder. Finding that Benanti was a libel-proof plaintiff as a result of his extensive criminality, however, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing his lawsuit in full.
“To establish a prima facie case of defamation in Tennessee, the plaintiff must establish that: 1) a party published a statement; 2) with knowledge that the statement is false and defaming to the other; or 3) with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement or with negligence in failing to ascertain the truth of the statement.” Sullivan v. Baptist Mem’l Hosp., 995 S.W.2d 569, 571 (Tenn. 1999) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 580 B (1977); Press, Inc. v. Verran, 569 S.W.2d 435, 442 (Tenn. 1978)). In order to recover for defamation, however, a plaintiff must have a reputation to begin with. Accordingly, a “libel-proof plaintiff” cannot maintain a defamation claim. See generally David L. Hudson, Jr., Shady Character: Examining the Libel-Proof Plaintiff Doctrine, 52 Tenn. B.J. 14 (2016).
In Benanti v. Satterfield, et al., the plaintiff did not dispute his extensive criminality. Instead, he “argue[d] that being known as a suspected murderer is worse than being known as a convicted bank robber, kidnapper, and carjacker.” Rejecting Benanti’s claim outright, the Tennessee Court of Appeals concluded that Benanti lacked a reputation because his “reputation as a violent criminal has been established in the public eye” given that he had been “accused, and ultimately convicted, of multiple violent felonies, including kidnapping and armed bank extortion,” and that “[b]y his own admission, plaintiff’s criminal activities were widely publicized.” In a novel ruling that creates favorable precedent for defamation defendants, the Tennessee Court of Appeals further held that because Benanti was convicted of several serious offenses that severely tarnished his reputation after his claim of defamation arose, Benanti’s “subsequent convictions make that issue moot.”
Read the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ unanimous opinion in Benanti v. Satterfield, et al., here.
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