From Graydon Head
Scottie Pippen, a 6 time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls may have been surprised to find himself a loser recently in a Chicago court. Certainly didn’t happen much back in the day. But this was not basketball court – it was the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. No dunking allowed.
Pippen brought a defamation suit against a number of media outlets for reporting that he’d declared bankruptcy. Although he’d suffered some financial reversals following his playing career, he’d never filed for bankruptcy. The trial court granted the defendants motion to dismiss, finding that Pippen failed to establish any harm from the reports, and moreover, that Pippen failed to establish that the reports were published with “actual malice.”
The appellate court affirmed. And in the process, the court made some interesting findings. First, Pippen contended that the false bankruptcy report was so innately damaging to his reputation that it constituted “defamation per se.” Certain types of statements fall in to the per se category. And if a defamation plaintiff can establish that a statement does constitute per se defamation, he need not prove actual damages flowing from the report. The jury may simply award a sum of money that in its approximates the damage to the plaintiff’s reputation.
Pippen argued that the false bankruptcy reports were per se defamation because they suggested that he could not competently perform his job, and/or that they injured him in the pursuit of his trade or profession. In the court’s view, however, the comments did not affect Pippen in the way he contended. According to the court, Pippen’s post playing jobs were “goodwill ambassador” for the Bulls, color commentator, and celebrity product endorser. A report that Pippen declared personal bankruptcy does not imply that he is incompetent at any of those tasks. The appellate court agreed that Pippen failed to establish per se defamation.