Defamation case against Bill Cosby dismissed by federal appeals court

By Dawn Geske | Jan 18, 2017

PHILADELPHIA – A case in which a woman making claims against Bill Cosby that he allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted her was dismissed in December by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Renita Hill filed the claims against Cosby, alleging that he retaliated against her after she claimed in a public interview that he drugged and sexually assaulted her. Hill filed for defamation and emotional distress after Cosby made three statements that allegedly put Hill’s integrity and reasons for doing the interview into question.

“In the Hill v. Cosby case, there were three allegedly defamatory statements,” Lee Brenner, chair of Kelley Drye’s Media and Entertainment practice group and a partner in the firm’s Los Angeles office, told the Pennsylvania Record.

“However, to prevail on a claim for defamation, a plaintiff must prove the intentional publication of a statement of fact that is false, unprivileged, and has a natural tendency to injure or which causes special damage.

"The defamatory statement also must specifically refer to, or be of and concerning, the plaintiff. A plaintiff must prove the same elements in order to prevail on a false light claim.”

In the case, the Third Circuit found that Hill did not meet the criteria necessary to prove defamation, as the three statements in question were not “actionable as a matter of law,” said Brenner.

The statements were made by both Cosby and his attorney to three news outlets, including the Washington Post and Florida Today, and Hill argued that the statements implied that she had lied and was extorting Cosby. While the statements made by Cosby and his attorney were reviewed by the court, it found that there was no evidence that they drew these conclusions.

In the statement made by Cosby’s attorney, the court held that Cosby could not be held liable for a statement he never made himself and that the entire context of a publication must be taken into account.

“Here, the court specifically found that the defendants did not characterize or label Ms. Hill as an extortionist,” said Brenner. “If no reasonable hearer could have reasonably understood the statement in the alleged defamatory sense, the matter may be decided as a question of law. That’s what the court did here.”

The dismissal of the case by the Third Circuit follows laws that are designed to protect an individual’s freedom of speech, as the court must rely on facts to prove defamation actually occurred.

“The court’s decision was reasonable and based upon well-established law,” said Brenner. “One truth about defamation claims is that they often arise in factual scenarios that are far from ideal. However, protecting our First Amendment principles could not be more important.”

If the ruling had gone in favor of Hill, it could have put defamation law in a new light and changed the characterization of what is acceptable in terms of statements to the press.

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