Tanner v. Ebbole – The Tattoo Parlor Slander Case
I can’t open Facebook without seeing blatantly false political “news” and other alarmist garbage every time I scroll down my news feed. And I know that politics and the health benefits of essential oils and saran wrap aren’t the only thing people lie about on social media. Which is why I am surprised that we don’t see more defamation cases nowadays. But today I want to talk about a case of defamation that occurred in social media and RL (“real life”).
Back in 2008, downtown Mobile’s Lower Dauphin St neighborhood (LoDa, as the lazy refer to it) was quite different. Fancy-food favorites like Noble South and Dumbwaiter and SaiSho weren’t there. But you know what was? LA Body Art and Demented Needle. These two tattoo parlors were neighbors: same block, same street, same side of the street. But they were not friends. Somehow an animosity developed between the two. Whether personal or competitive in origin, I don’t know. But apparently the folks at Demented Needle had such a low opinion of their skin-pricking brethren down the street that they told various customers, tattoo-artist job seekers, and others that the proprietress of LA Body Art had certain diseases of an alarming and scandalous nature. These individuals were so bold as to post their slanderous opinions on paper bulletins on the wall and, more unfortunately for everyone, on MySpace. (For those who may not know, MySpace was a crazy, disorganized predecessor to Facebook in the social media world. By the time you read this, it may no longer exist).
But some of the things these folks said about LA Body Art’s tattooista were not true. And if you make a public statement about someone which is false and portrays them in a negative light, then you can be held liable for defamation. Written defamation is called libel; oral defamation is slander. In other words, if you’re going to talk bad about someone, you need to be sure that what you’re saying is true. Or you may find yourself in court. Which is what happened to the folks at the Demented Needle.
A trial was held, and the jury found for the plaintiff. And though they awarded her only $1 in compensatory damages (meaning that they agreed with her side of the story, but didn’t think she proved any actual financial loss), they awarded punitive damages of $200,000 against Demented Needle, and separate punitive damages awards of $100,000 and $10,000 against two of the folks who worked at Demented Needle.
If she couldn’t prove any direct financial harm, why were the awards so big? Because they had accused the plaintiff of having veneral diseases, and this sort of insult is considered so serious that the law treats it as slander per se. And “when the plaintiff has proven slander per se, the law presumes injury to reputation and mental suffering.”Liberty Nat’l Life Ins. Co. v. Daugherty, 840 So.2d 152, 162 (Ala.2002). ”
A reputation is worth more than gold.
Of course,like all defendants who have been hit with a punitive damages judgment for doing bad things, these folks appealed. But the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals upheld most of the verdict. Which is the real reason this opinion is remarkable: the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals isn’t known for its friendliness to punitive damages verdicts, but they upheld a big punitive damages verdict against the defendants in this case. They even cited Shakespeare:
“Iago says to Othello:
“`Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash;
‘Tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, `tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.’
“Othello, Act III, scene 3.”
You can read the full opinion here: Tanner v. Ebbole Opinion