(CN) - A Louisiana man cannot keep a $10,000 defamation award after the state improperly reported that he had killed a passenger in drunken driving crash, an appeals court ruled.
John Kelly Martin Jr., 37, sued the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for naming him as the driver who lost control of his pickup truck and rolled it, ejecting Jimmy Griffin Jr., who was killed by an oncoming vehicle.
"Alcohol usage is suspected of Mr. Martin Jr.," stated the report, which was released to television stations and newspapers in Shreveport and Alexandria.
In his subsequent defamation suit, Martin showed that his 56-year-old father, John Kelly Martin, had been the driver.
The father does not have "junior" in his name.
The younger Martin testified that the erroneous report came out just after he underwent colon cancer surgery, and that the report caused him embarrassment and losses in his timber business.
A Winn Parish court held the state liable and ordered it to pay Martin Jr. $10,000.
The Shreveport-based Second Circuit Court of Appeal reversed on Jan. 16.
"A strong public policy exists in favor of a conditional or qualified privilege being extended to reports to law enforcement of alleged wrongful acts to protect the public," Judge D. Milton Moore III wrote for a three-member panel. "Therefore, there is no civil liability imposed on a citizen for inaccurately reporting criminal misconduct with no attempt to mislead."
"The evidence in this case indicates that the mistake was very likely a clerical error, given the fact that the driver and the plaintiff have the same name, except for the suffix, which was not on several documents, the fatality victim in the accident was a 'Jr.,' and the radio communication from Trooper Nugent in which he said 'Vehicle No. 1 was a junior,' coupled with the urgency with which these reports are made," he added.
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