(CN) – A Minnesota paper worker’s disparaging comment about a co-worker opened him up to liability for defamation, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled.
LeRoy Bahr and Stacy Rasmussen worked together at the Boise Cascade Corp. paper mill.
One day in 2001, Rasmussen arrived at work to hear that from several sources that he was about to work alongside someone who had been spreading rumors that he was having an extramarital affair.
Rasmussen understood that to mean Bahr, and he said he did not mean for anyone else to hear when he said “I have to work with that lazy, fat, f—er.”
Rasmussen called Bahr on the phone to complain. Bahr denied starting the rumor, and he passed the phone to a co-worker, who admitted to spreading the story.
Three weeks later, Bahr and Rasmussen discussed the incident again, and Bahr was later escorted from the building after Rasmussen told his supervisor, who is also his uncle, that Bahr was the one who started the rumor.
After an investigation, Bahr was suspended for three days, and he refused to sign a last-chance agreement.
Bahr sued Rasmussen and the company for defamation. The trial court ruled in Bahr’s favor, but the court of appeals reversed the decision on the grounds that the court should not have submitted the question of actual malice.
Justice Gildea again reversed.
“Bahr argues that the evidence was sufficient to create a jury issue on the existence of Rasmussen’s actual malice,” Gildea wrote. “Rasmussen’s comment, while made approximately three weeks before the defamatory conduct, is not so remote as to be rendered irrelevant to the question of whether Rasmussen’s ill will motivated the publication of the defamatory statements.”
Gildea found that the company was not liable for the defamation since it did not show malice to Bahr.