In August 2014, Cooper filed for divorce against Burns. In December 2015, while the divorce matter was pending, Burns visited her father in Washington, D.C. Concerned about the safety of her jewelry and other valuables, including a Louis Vuitton baby bag, Burns removed the items from her home and put them in her car. While her car was parked outside of her father’s house, someone stole the jewelry, Louis Vuitton baby bag and other personal items. Burns immediately contacted the police, who prepared a report in connection with the incident. Burns submitted an insurance claim to Erie Insurance Company (“Erie”) in connection with the loss. The initial processing of the claim was assigned to Riser, a representative of Erie, and the claim appeared to proceed in a routine manner. However, because the insurance policy was in the names of both Cooper and Burns, Erie required Cooper to join in the claim, and, thus, Riser contacted Cooper via telephone in January 2016. Riser noted the following:
Cooper stated he does not believe this incident occured, therefore he will not be signing the claim forms. He stated that she does not have a Luis Vuitton bag, but it is a baby bag. He finds it hard to believe that she left such high value items in the car.
Riser referred Burns’ claim to Erie’s fraud unit. Erie’s investigator, Carlin, contacted Burns and requested that she meet with him in his office to review the facts surrounding her insurance claim. Burns, who held a physical therapist license, became concerned she was being investigated for fraud. In June 2016, Burns filed a complaint, alleging defamation and tortious interference with contract.
Burns specifically alleged Cooper made false statements to Erie representatives indicating Burns filed a fraudulent insurance claim. Burns averred her reputation was damaged by Cooper’s false statements, which suggested Burns had committed the crime of insurance fraud. Burns also averred Cooper’s intentional false defamatory statements, which he made to Erie representatives, interfered with her insurance contract with Erie. Cooper filed a counterclaim in which he presented against Burns a claim of abuse of process. By order entered on October 30, 2018, the trial court denied Cooper’s motion for summary judgment; however, the trial court granted Burns’ motion for summary judgment.
At the conclusion of the jury trial, the jury awarded Burns $55,000 in compensatory damages on both claims. Additionally, the jury awarded Burns $20,000 in punitive damages. The trial court denied Cooper’s post-trial motion. On appeal, Cooper contended the trial court was required to determine before trial, and as a matter of law, whether any statements made by Appellant were capable of a defamatory meaning. Cooper also argued that, to the extent the trial court attempted to “cure” its error by asserting in its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion that Appellant’s statements were capable of a defamatory meaning, the court’s attempt was improper since such a determination must be made by the trial court before the commencement of trial.
In Pennsylvania, the requirements of a defamation claim are codified as follows:
(a) Burden of plaintiff—In an action for defamation, the plaintiff has the burden of proving, when the issue is properly raised:
(1) The defamatory character of the communication.
(2) Its publication by the defendant.
(3) Its application to the plaintiff.
(4) The understanding by the recipient of its defamatory meaning.
(5) The understanding by the recipient of it as intended to be applied to the plaintiff.
(6) Special harm resulting to the plaintiff from its publication.
(7) Abuse of a conditionally privileged occasion.
(b) Burden of defendant—In an action for defamation, the defendant has the burden of proving, when the issue is properly raised:
(1) The truth of the defamatory communication.
(2) The privileged character of the occasion on which it was published.
(3) The character of the subject matter of defamatory comment as of public concern.
42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8343.
Relating specifically to the defamatory character of the communication, Pennsylvania courts have held the following:
Whether the challenged statements are capable of having a defamatory meaning is a question of law for the court to determine in the first instance. “A statement is defamatory if it tends to harm an individual’s reputation so as to lower h[er] in the estimation of the community or deter third persons from associating or dealing with h[er].” Pennsylvania courts have held that certain types of communications, although undoubtedly offensive to the subject, do not rise to the level of defamation. For example, expressions of opinion are not actionable. Likewise, statements which are merely annoying or embarrassing or “‘no more than rhetorical hyperbole’” or “‘a vigorous epithet’” are not defamatory. Kryeski v. Schott Glass Technologies, Inc., 626 A.2d 595, 600-01 (Pa.Super. 1993)
Prior to trial, in denying Cooper’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that Cooper made statements to an Erie representative casting doubt on the validity of her insurance claim. Those statements include that Burns “was a liar who could not be trusted.” Cooper argues that the statement was not defamatory, that it was protected by privilege. The court however concluded that the statement that someone is a liar is, “‘as a matter of law, capable of defamatory meaning.” Smith v. Wagner, 588 A.2d 1308, 1311 (Pa.Super. 1991)
Accordingly, the Superior Court found that the trial court considered in the first instance whether the challenged statement was capable of having a defamatory meaning as a question of law when it ruled on Cooper’s summary judgment motion.
Cooper also argued the evidence offered at trial was insufficient to sustain the jury’s verdict since Burns failed to prove “the statement’s recipient — the insurer -- understood the statement to have a defamatory meaning.”
[To be defamatory the] communication [must] tend] to so harm another’s reputation as to lower h[er] in the estimation of the community or deter third persons from associating or dealing with h[er]. To be defamatory, these words must have been understood by the ‘recipient correctly, or mistakenly but reasonably,’ to mean what the defamed party asserts they were understood to mean.
Baird v. Dun and Bradstreet, 446 Pa. 266, 285 A.2d 166, 169 (1971). With regard to the latter, the “nature of the audience hearing the remarks is a critical factor[.]” Maier v. Maretti, 671 A.2d 701, 704 (Pa.Super. 1995)
Here, the Superior Court concluded the jury could reasonably find the recipients of Cooper’s statement understood the statement to be defamatory in nature. For instance, Cooper admitted that, although he had no first-hand knowledge of the situation, he was a policyholder in the instant matter and informed an Erie representative that he believed the incident as alleged by Burns did not occur. He admitted he was aware that, if Burns filed a claim for a loss, and the loss did not occur, the claim would be considered dishonest. Further, after being confronted with his deposition testimony, Cooper admitted at trial he informed an Erie representative that Burns “was a liar who could not be trusted[.]” Moreover, Gremminger, an Erie property claim supervisor, admitted Erie delayed paying Burns’ insurance claim and conducted a full fraud investigation based on Cooper’s statements.