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Analysis of Tort of False Light

6 min read

By Muskan Goel

Published On: November 17, 2021 at 13:00 IST

Introduction

When we talk about torts that lead to invasion of ones’ privacy, the four main categories that strike up are misappropriation, intrusion, publication of ones’ private facts and false light. Tort of false light is widely used in the USA but is yet to be incorporated in India. Tort of false light occurs when something false/untrue about anybody is published.

In this article we will analyze and talk about the tort of false light in detail along with the difference in false light and defamation.

What is tort of false light?

The claim for false light arises when certain material that contains false implications and information about a person is published, be it with or without the knowledge of the validity of the information. False light is somewhat similar to defamation yet the two are different. Such material or information should be highly offensive and absolutely incorrect, in order to raise a claim for false light. This tort protects such innocent people about whom the false/unpleasant news has been published. In the US the tort of false light is codified under Sections 652A and 652E of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.[i]

These kinds of claims that fall under false light are often brought against the media when they publish untrue things about an individual/company etc.

What are the elements required to constitute a claim of false light?

  • Falsehood

It is extremely important that the information about the plaintiff that has been published is untrue/false. True statements are not actionable per se.

  • Offensiveness

The material so published must be highly offensive to a prudent man/ reasonable person. Any other person apart from the plaintiff must have been offended by the publication in order to raise a claim of false light.

  • The plaintiff’s identification

The publication must sufficiently point towards the plaintiff either directly or indirectly. The courts have the right to judge whether the publications talks about the plaintiff or not, this again depends on numerable factors like the situation, case in hand, referring to someone else etc.

  • Published publically

The burden of proof in this lies on the plaintiff as he must show that the defendant published the untrue/false statement to the public and must have reached the targeted audience as well.

  • Fault

The plaintiff must prove that he was placed in false light due to the fault of the defendant.[ii]

 What is the difference between false light and defamation?

False light is somewhat similar to defamation yet the two are different. The one basic key difference between the two is that a statement need not be defamatory in nature to be actionable under the category of false light; it simply needs to be false.

Defamation keenly focuses on the damage that has been caused to the plaintiff’s reputation in the society whereas; false light takes into account the impact of the published material/information on emotional and mental well-being of the plaintiff. In short, false light claims aim to protect the mental and emotional well-being of the plaintiff while the claims for defamation tends to protect the plaintiff’s reputation in the society.

The elements those are required by a person to bring a claim for defamation in the court of law are as follows:

  • The statement was published, i.e. made known to a person other than the plaintiff
  • The statement so published must cause damage to the plaintiff’s reputation in the society
  • The statement so published should be false.

While the elements that are required to be proven by a person bringing claim for false light are as follows:

  • The defendant must have publically disclosed certain kind of information about the plaintiff
  • The material/information so published must have presented the plaintiff in false light
  • The material must be highly offensive for a reasonable person other than the plaintiff

However, claim for false light enjoys certain privileges over claim for defamation due to the underlying reasons:

  • Due to the lack of proper codification of tort of false light, there are no or lesser restrictions on recovery of damages. If the plaintiff wins he can recover much more as damages.
  • Defamation gives an upper hand to the defendant with abundant defences of the statement being true, or a matter of personal opinion etc. in false light, the upper hand is given to the plaintiff because the context in which the publication was made is also taken into account.
  • In certain cases, where a statement might be embarrassing to the plaintiff, but does not affect their reputation in the society, defamation finds no use and validity; plaintiffs in such cases go for false light since the latter is concerned with emotional and mental well-being of the plaintiff.

Case Laws

  • Solano Vs Playgirl Inc.[iii]

FACTS: The January 1999 issue of playgirl magazine had featured a cover photo of actor Jose Solano. However, Solano had not posed or gave interview for the magazine; he had also not consented to the magazine for using his picture. In the photo published by the magazine on its cover, he was shown shirtless and offensive phrases were written along with the picture.

ISSUE: Whether playgirl magazine had committed the tort of false light or not

HELD: The magazine was held guilty of committing tort of false light and Solano was able to recover damages from the magazine.

  • Peoples Bank & Trust Co. Vs Globe Int’l, Inc.[iv]

FACTS: A tabloid newspaper had published a photo of a 96 year old woman, stating her to be pregnant, while she was not pregnant. The lady filed a suit for damages against the tabloid newspaper. The newspaper publishers argued that she had no valid claim and thus her action is unjustified.

ISSUE: Whether the tabloid newspaper had committed a tort of false light or not

HELD: It was held that the lady’s action was very well justified and the tabloid newspaper was guilty of tort of false light. The lady was awarded a sum of $1.5M as damages. 

  • Warren E. Spahn Vs Julian Messner, Inc.[v]

FACTS: The defendant had published a biography of the plaintiff exclusively for children, and thus was largely fictionalised. In accordance to that fictional story, the defendant made certain false claims regarding the plaintiff. Spahn sought an injunction to stop publishing the book further, and filed an action in court seeking damages.

ISSUE: Whether the defendant has committed tort of false light or not?

HELD: The court gave its decision in favour of Spahn as the falsehoods had caused him emotional and mental distress. The court ordered the defendants to pay a sum of $10,000 as damages to Spahn.

Should tort of false light be incorporated in India?

In my opinion, the doctrine of false light would prove to be extremely useful and fruitful in a country like India, because the cases where defamation doesn’t fit need another doctrine/statute. As discussed above defamation provides abundant defences like truth, opinion etc. which bails the defendant out easily, but in certain cases where context of publication is to be taken into account, the tort of false light would prove actionable per se.

Also, the defendants would no longer be able to use defences and get released; they would serve adequate punishment, thus, improving the law and order in the country. The courts will be able to set examples, and maintain stricter law and order in the society.

Also, in the upcoming world of technology and artificial intelligence, the need for statutes like tort of false light would increase in order to serve justice to the people.

Conclusion

In a country like India, where there is rich heritage and diverse cultural groups reside together, the doctrine of false light would prove extremely useful and fruitful in serving justice. People won’t have to fear any viral information being spread about them as they would simply be able to move the court for seeking redressal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Muskan Goel is a student of BA.LLB at Vivekananda School of Law and Legal Studies (VSLLS, VIPS). She believes that hard work is necessary for success but smart work is the ultimate mantra for success. She readily adjusts according to the environment and always strives for perfection. She also believes that everyday brings a new opportunity for her to learn new things.

Edited by: Aashima Kakkar, Associate Editor, Law Insider


[i] Restatement of the Law, Second, Torts.

[ii] Elements required to constitute a claim of false light have been taken from the article by Anshika Chadha called “The Tort of False Light: An Indian Perspective

[iii] Solano Vs Playgirl Inc 292 F.3d 1078, 2002 

[iv] Peoples Bank & Trust Co. Vs Globe Int’l, Inc. 978 F2d 1065, December 11, 1992

[v] Warren E. Spahn Vs Julian Messner, Inc., 18 N.Y.2d 324, 274 N.Y.S.2d 877, 221 N.E.2d 543 (N.Y. 1966)