Defamation Claim Dismissed; Alleged Defamatory Statements Were Non-Actionable Opinion, and Allegations Were Insufficiently Specific as to Time

A recent decision, Petrisko v Animal Medical Center, No. 151573/2018, 2019 NY Slip Op 30679(U), 2019 WL 1311026 (N.Y. Sup Ct, New York County Mar. 22, 2019), highlights important features of New York defamation law – such as when alleged defamatory statements are non-actionable opinion, and the specificity with which such claims must be alleged.

As to the substantive law, Judge Jaffe explained:

To sustain a cause of action for defamation, the plaintiff must plead 1) a false statement, 2) publication of it to a third party, 3) absent privilege or authorization, which 4) causes harm, unless the statement is defamatory per se, in which case harm is presumed. … Statements of opinion, regardless of their derisiveness, are not actionable. … Whether a statement constitutes an opinion turns on whether it may be objectively characterized as true.

Applying the law to the facts, the court held that defendant’s “alleged statements calling plaintiff ‘diabolical,’ ‘evil,’ “unstable,’ and a ‘narcissist’ are not actionable as they constitute statements of opinion” and that “[t]he term ‘pathological liar’ is also a statement of opinion, as plaintiff alleges that the term was used along with the other aforementioned hyperbolic terms … and she does not allege that she had been accused of lying about any particular matter.”

As to pleading, the court notes that “[t]o state a claim for defamation, the plaintiff must specify the time, place, and manner of the false statement.” Here, “[p]laintiffs allegations that defamatory statements were made ‘[t]hroughout the period late December 2016 until March 16, 2017,’ ‘[d]uring dinner in February 2017,’ and ‘[i]n March 2017’ are too vague to meet the temporal specificity requirement.” In addition, defendant’s “alleged statements … that plaintiff is a ‘drug addict’ and is drugging her horse are not actionable as plaintiff does not specify dates or times.”