HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) - A woman who sued the family of an old boyfriend, missing these past 11 years, must retry her defamation claims, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled.
Bus driver Bill Smolinski vanished on Aug. 24, 2004, and his disappearance has never been explained.
At the time, the Waterbury man had been working at B and B Transportation and had recently broken up with his co-worker, Madeleine Gleason, a somewhat older woman who was also having an affair with a local, married politician, Chris Sorensen.
With three marriages under her belt, Gleason had experienced her own share of tragedy. Her daughter had killed herself before Smolinski's disappearance; one of her son's died of an overdose in the years after; and another of Gleason's children died around then as well.
Gleason refused to take a lie-detector test, but she later testified that the suspicions about her role in Smolinski's disappearance made it difficult for her to gain custody of her daughter's child.
Smolinski's parents, William and Janice, and his sister, Paula Bell, had placed missing-persons posters throughout Connecticut, but Gleason said the family harassed her specifically by plastering the posters around the areas where she lived and worked.
After noticing that their posters were being torn down or vandalized, the family managed to videotape Gleason in the act. There was then a confrontation in the Woodbridge police station.
Gleason sued the mother and sister for emotional distress and defamation after a confrontation at the police station, and testified about the toll their torment took on her.
"Of all people, I would know what it's like to lose a child, but these people all they do is keep following me, harassing me," Gleason said, according to court records. "Every time I turn on the news, it's Madeleine Gleason, what does she have to hide? And if you watch on the show, 'The Disappearance,' my name seventy times on the show. And all these newspapers and these television shows are going by what the Smolinskis are telling them; they've never come to me and asked me what my story is. I never even knew I was going to be on television until I watched it."
Smolinski's family denied that they ever called Gleason a murderer or targeted her with the posters. They also said the other issues in Gleason's life could have caused her emotional distress.
A judge in New Haven nevertheless ordered the family to pay Gleason $52,600 in compensatory and punitive damages, and the Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed last year.
The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed 5-2 this week and remanded for a new trial, saying the lower court's finding of actual malice was lacking.
The 39-page lead opinion says any intent by Smolinsky's family "to 'hound' the plaintiff until she 'broke' with respect to what she knew about Bill's disappearance did not ... necessarily transform the protected nature of their speech."
Precedent for the reversal comes from the U.S. Supreme Court's 2011 ruling in Snyder v. Phelps, which supported the speech rights of the hate mongers at the Westboro Baptist Church.
In Gleason's case, there is insufficient evidence that the missing-persons posters were aimed at her, and it can also be construed that the confrontations were designed to gain information on Smolinski's whereabouts.
"The content of the communications at issue relates to a matter of public concern," Justice Richard Robinson wrote for the majority. "Our inquiry does not, however, end here, as we must also consider the form and context of the communications at issue."
Justice Peter Zarella joined a dissent by Justice Dennis Eveleigh, which blasts the majority for accepting "a contrived, post hoc rationalization for the harassing conduct by the defendants, ... allowing a hollow invocation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in order to protect conduct not deserving of its aegis."
Though courts must protect the free trade of ideas, Eveleigh said "no protected ideas were intended to be expressed by the defendants in continuously bombarding the plaintiff, Madeleine Gleason, with flyers at her residence and place of employment."
"Shielding this harassing conduct, the sum of which caused the plaintiff 'to fear for her safety and that of her child,' cannot be tolerated in a decent society and is neither envisioned nor dictated by our first amendment jurisprudence," Eveleigh wrote. "For these reasons, I respectfully dissent."