June 1, 2017
Historically, South Carolina has followed the general rule that truth is a complete defense to a claim of defamation. An insinuation, however, drawn from a truthful statement, may be an exception to that general rule, and consequently serve as the basis for a claim of defamation.
In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina held:
“The Court declines the invitation to expand this narrow exception to South Carolina defamation law to situations where the parties have agreed the communications made were factually accurate.”
Charles Phillip Toussaint, M.D. v. Palmetto Heath
In Toussaint, filed as an employment discrimination action, the plaintiff asserts that Palmetto Health’s letter to its patients regarding the plaintiff’s separation from employment created an inference that the plaintiff had abandoned his patients.
A “mere insinuation is as actionable as a positive assertion if it is false and malicious and the meaning is plain." Tyler v. Macks Stores of S. C., Inc.,. Thus, while truth provides a complete defense to defamation, an untrue innuendo or inference which may be derived from the true statement may give rise to liability. Adams v. Daily Tel. Co. Such an inference must, however, be reasonable. Fountain v. First Reliance Bank.
In Toussaint, the plaintiff admitted the truth of the communication provided by Palmetto Health to its patients. That communication simply informed patients the plaintiff “will no longer practice at Palmetto Health Neurosurgery Associates.” As a result, the Court declined the opportunity to expand the narrow exception of insinuation to the general rule that truth is a complete defense to defamation.
Cheryl D. Shoun is a trial attorney and certified mediator whose experience includes construction law, insurance defense, personal injury defense, employment litigation and medical malpractice.