Defamation claims arising out of death of "white" deer are dismissed
John Ingersoll shot a mostly-white deer that people in the neighborhood considered something of a pet. While it is illegal to shoot an albino deer, it is not illegal to shoot a "piebald" deer. This technical distinction is lost on most people. When word got out that Ingersoll had shot the neighborhood pet, several people wrote to the local paper criticizing him for shooting an "albino" deer. Ingersoll responded with a lawsuit in Cheboygan County, claiming that he was defamed by the writers' mis-use of the term albino and erroneous claims that he had shot an illegal deer.
A unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's dismissal of the defamation claims. While it noted that falsely accusing someone of a crime is libel per se, the judges did not believe that the letter-writers' claims were "materially" false. The court's opinion noted that libel will not rest on misuse of a technical legal term by lay persons. Further, by his actions, the Plaintiff had made himself a "limited public figure". Taken in total, the claims made by the letter-writers were "substantially true", despite their confusion over the technical legal distinction between albino and piebald deer, and therefore they were protected from claims of defamation unless published with "actual malice". In this case, actual malice means knowledge of the falsity of the claims or reckless disregard for truth. The remaining statements criticized by Plaintiff were either matters of opinion, subjective observation or satire and rhetorical hyperbole--none of which are actionable.