In the case of Fox v. Smith, No. 39 EAP 2019 (Pa. Nov. 17, 2021), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that a plaintiff may select a single venue in a defamation action in any location in which publication and concomitant injury has occurred.
In November 2017, Stacy Smith, a Republican, was elected mayor of the Borough of Chester Heights in Delaware County, defeating the Democratic candidate, Joy M. Fox. After the election, Fox sued Smith in Philadelphia County, alleging defamation, false light and civil conspiracy. Specifically, Fox claimed Smith created a Facebook page and published information falsely accusing her of having been charged with a crime of engaging in a fraudulent banking transaction. Fox asserted that venue was proper in Philadelphia County because the subject website was accessible to – and accessed by – Philadelphia residents, including her friend, who believed the posted information to be damaging to Fox’s reputation.
Smith filed preliminary objections to the Complaint challenging the appropriateness of venue in Philadelphia County. The trial court overruled Smith’s objections primarily relying on the case of Gaetano v. Sharon Herald Co., 426 Pa. 179, 231 A.2d 753 (1967), which involved a libel case deriving from a newspaper publication. In Gaetano, the Supreme Court determined that for purposes of redressing defamatory statements a cause of action arises in locations where publication of the statements has occurred. See id.. See generally42 Pa.C.S. §8343. A publication occurs where a statement is read by a third person and understood by that individual as being defamatory. See id.; accord 42 Pa.C.S. §8343(a)(4), (5).
Smith appealed the trial court’s decision to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, who determined that extending the Gaetano approach to internet-based communications was consistent with the treatment by various federal courts. The Superior Court also explained that by publishing the scandalous information online, Smith knew or should have known the information would have been read by Fox’s neighbors or associates throughout the state.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, Smith argued the case involved a dispute among Delaware County residents arising out of internet and social media posts originating in Delaware County during a mayoral election in Delaware County; therefore, the venue should be Delaware County. Smith also presented various policy-based arguments why the Gaetano approach should not be extended to internet-based publication. Specifically, Smith highlighted the relative ease of access to internet posts from any location and the fact that such posts can be copied, shared and linked repeatedly without the original poster knowing about, let alone approving, such republication. In these circumstances, Smith believed additional constraints on venue are necessary to impose rational and effective boundaries, thus mitigating the possibility for contrivances and forum shopping. In response, Fox argued that Gaetano’s framework appropriately balances the interest of plaintiffs in restoring their reputations in forums in which they have been damaged with the ability of defendants to ensure selected venues are meaningfully connected to the disputes.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted Fox’s position. “[U]nder the applicable Rules of Civil Procedure, venue is proper, inter alia, in counties in which a cause of action has arisen.” See Pa.R.C.P. Nos. 1006(a)(1), 2179(a)(3). A cause of action for defamation arises where publication of defamatory statements occurs, and where a third-party recipient understands the statement as being defamatory. Gaetano, 426 Pa. at 182, 231 A.2d at 755. Moreover, the Supreme Court cited to The Uniform Single Publication Act, which provides for a single cause of action for damages for such statements and specifically that “[r]ecovery in any action shall include all damages for any such tort suffered by the plaintiff in all jurisdictions.” 42 Pa.C.S. §8341(b). Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff may select a single venue in a defamation action in any location in which publication and concomitant injury has occurred, albeit that publication and harm may have ensued in multiple counties.