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UHL v. CBS INC.

June 13, 1979

CLARE RANDALL UHL
v.
CBS INC.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEBER

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The Defendant has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment which sets out two grounds: 1) that the Plaintiff's action is barred by the one year Statute of Limitations applicable to defamation actions in Pennsylvania; and 2) that the documentary film published by the Defendant does not show the Defendant in an actionable false light and is protected by the First Amendment.

 I.

 The Defendant's first contention is based upon the statute of limitations. The Defendant broadcast the documentary in September 1975, and the Plaintiff filed his action in June 1977. The Defendant argues that, despite the fact that the Plaintiff has brought his action as an invasion of privacy theory for placing him in a false light, his allegations "sound in defamation" and his complaint should be dismissed because it was filed more than one year after the telecast. The Defendant seems to imply that defamation and false light are mutually exclusive torts and that because the allegations "sound in defamation" the one year statute of limitations ought to apply. The torts of defamation and invasion of privacy, however, are separate and distinct in Pennsylvania law, compare Corabi v. Curtis Publishing Co., 441 Pa. 432, 273 A.2d 899 (1971) with Vogel v. W. T. Grant Co., 458 Pa. 124, 327 A.2d 133 (1974), and we cannot re-classify the Plaintiff's case and apply the defamation statute of limitations solely because it "sounds in defamation" when his factual allegations support his claim that the Defendant invaded his privacy by portraying him in a false light. Our viewing of the telecast indicates that his allegations were made in good faith.

 Accordingly, the issue raised by the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment becomes whether actions for invasion of privacy are governed by the one year defamation statute of limitations or the two year personal injury statute of limitations. In 1974 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted the formulation of the tort of invasion of privacy set out in Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652A, Vogel v. W. T. Grant Co., supra 458 Pa. at 129. Since Vogel, Pennsylvania courts have only twice discussed the statute of limitations applicable in actions for invasion of privacy and on both occasions said that the statute of limitations is two years for invasion of privacy and one year for defamation, Kennedy v. The Bulletin Co., 237 Pa.Super. 66, 70, 346 A.2d 343 (1975), allocatur refused; Hoffman v. Hibbs, 235 Pa.Super. 470, 344 A.2d 546, 547 (1975), allocatur refused. Both decisions rely on Hull v. Curtis Publishing Co., 182 Pa.Super. 86, 125 A.2d 644 (1956) which was decided before Pennsylvania adopted the formulation of the tort of invasion of privacy set out in the Restatement § 652A but during the time that Pennsylvania recognized an individual's legally protectable interest in not being falsely portrayed to the public, the essence of "false light" invasion of privacy.

 In Hull, certain policemen brought an action in trespass for invasion of privacy against the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post for publishing a photograph of the plaintiffs holding a suspect after apprehending him. The plaintiffs alleged that the picture portrayed them to the public as bullies beating a defenseless prisoner. The photograph was not published as part of a news account of the robbery but rather accompanied a newspaper account of the experiences of a California police chief entitled "Crime Is My Business." The defendant explained that the photograph was selected from a collection of several because it effectively illustrated the article with which it was published. The facts of Hull approximated those which give rise to the tort of "false light" invasion of privacy in the post-Vogel era.

 The issue in Hull was whether the statute of limitations for actions alleging invasion of privacy was that of personal injury actions 2 years, or that of actions for trespass to goods of cattle 6 years. After discussing at length and with eloquence the similarities between injuries to one's person and those to one's reputation, the court held that "the statute of limitations on an action for invasion of privacy is two years . . . .," 125 A.2d at 649.

 The Defendant challenges the precedential value of Hull for the instant case on the grounds that the court in Hull did not consider whether the applicable statute of limitations for invasion of privacy should be less than two years, or in other words, whether a plaintiff should have twice as long to file action alleging invasion of privacy as he has to file an action alleging defamation. Any such weakness in the precedential value of Hull was remedied by Hoffman v. Hibbs, supra, in which the Superior Court had the opportunity to modify its holding in Hull by holding that the statutes of limitations for defamation and invasion of privacy should both be one year and by dismissing the Plaintiff's motion to amend his complaint to allege invasion of privacy. Instead, the court allowed the plaintiff, whose defamation claim was barred by the one year statute of limitations, to amend his complaint to allege invasion of privacy and to proceed on that count which was filed after one year but within two years of the actionable conduct. Based upon this series of cases, we must hold that the statute of limitations for cases alleging invasion of privacy is two years.

 We apply this rule, however, without agreeing with it, accord, Neville Chemical Co. v. Union Carbide Corp., 422 F.2d 1205, 1227-28 (3d Cir. 1970). We cannot see why the statutes of limitations for defamation and invasion of privacy should differ when the interests they protect are so similar. The purpose of statutes of limitations is to allow a plaintiff a reasonable time to realize the nature and extent of his injuries and file a lawsuit and, after that time passes, to bar actions and thereby relieve potential defendants of the anxiety of litigation. The appropriate length of statutes of limitations is governed by the kinds of injuries which particular causes of action protect and the speed at which they become apparent to the plaintiff. The injuries which may result from defamation and invasion of privacy are similar in nature and injuries resulting from defamation arise, as a general rule, no faster than those resulting from invasion of privacy. Publications which may give rise to liability under both torts travel through the same media at the same speed. That a particular act may give rise to a cause of action under both torts but that the two statutes of limitations may differ in such cases baffles the court as well as the layman and gives substance to Dickens' observation about the nature of the law. The recent act of the Pennsylvania legislature which established a one year statute of limitations for both defamation and invasion of privacy, Judicial Code of 1976, § 5523, P.L. 586, Act No. 142, June 27, 1978, solves this aberration, but too late for us in this case.

 II.

 Because we have determined that the action which is not barred is an invasion of privacy action under Restatement § 652A, we cannot conclude that the second ground of the defendant's motion to dismiss is applicable to the valid invasion of privacy claim. While the defendant urges that the publication is subject to the initial determination by the Court that the publication is capable of a defamatory meaning, we cannot find any support for the argument that similar treatment must be accorded any allegation of invasion of privacy because of the distinction the Pennsylvania courts have drawn between the two causes of action. Therefore, we also deny the second ground of the defendant's motion to dismiss without prejudice to its reconsideration at the time of trial. We have separately ordered pretrial briefs to be submitted on this point.

 ON MOTION FOR JUDGMENT N.O.V.

 
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