Florida Body Shop's Slander Suit Against State Farm Dismissed; Judge
Rules State Farm's Statements to Insureds are Privileged, Express
Malice Not Proven
April 6, 2010
A U.S. District Court in Florida has dismissed a slander suit brought
by a Florida auto body suit against State Farm in a summary judgment.
The ruling was issued last week by Judge Steven D. Merryday in Tampa,
Gunder's Auto Center, based in Lakeland, Fla., brought the suit
against State Farm last March, and alleged that State Farm tortiously
interfered with at least three customers and made "slanderous
and/or tortious statements to those identified prospective customers."
Gunder's claimed these false statements included State Farm advising
that the shop was overcharging its customers; that it doesn't repair
its customers' vehicles in a timely and efficient way; and that
Gunder's repair equipment does not pass State Farm's inspection
and is lacking in quality. (CLICK
HERE for related story.)
State Farm argued in the case that "even if State Farm agents
uttered false statements about the plaintiff, the statements are
privileged." Florida law defines privileged statements as "a
communication made in good faith on any subject matter by one having
an interest therein, or in reference to which he has a duty
if made to a person having a corresponding interest or duty, even
though it contains matter which would otherwise be actionable, and
though the duty is not a legal one but only a moral or social obligation."
Based on this idea, the company argued that "because it was
acting as an insurer and was communicating with a party seeking
benefits under the insurance contract about an issue in which they
have a common interest-the prompt and full payment of the repairs,"
any statements made to insureds were "privileged."
The judge confirmed this argument, but explained in his opinion,
that, even privileged statements, if made with "express malice"
(defined as "ill will, hostility, [or] evil intention to defame
and injure"), can be considered slander.
"Although State Farm's statements (if false) might be defamatory,
the plaintiff offers no evidence (other than the alleged falsity
of the statements) from which a juror could infer malice,"
writes the judge in his March 29 opinion. "The statements 'do
not inherently demonstrate express malice.'"
He goes on to write, "State Farm neither attacked the plaintiff's
moral character nor accused the plaintiff nor its proprietors of
violent crime; each allegedly slanderous statement concerns only
the matter of common interest between State Farm and the insured-the
quality and value of the plaintiff's work."
Gunder's was represented by Alan Brent Geohagan of Geohagan Law,
who advised glassBYTEs.com/AGRR magazine this afternoon
that he is planning to appeal the ruling.
HERE for full text of opinion.
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