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Justices establish 'public interest privilege' in defamation suit

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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A Vigo County Schools superintendent is protected from liability for defamation relating to comments he made in 2001 about an unidentified gunman who'd fired a shotgun at him, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous decision late Wednesday, the court followed what other states have done and adopted a public interest privilege for Indiana designed to protect certain communications for private citizens. The privilege ruling puts an end to the six-year defamation dispute involving comments Superintendent Daniel T. Tanoos made about his own attempted murder and the man he believed had committed the acts - Paul Joseph "Jay" Kelley III.

Kelley had displayed animosity toward Tanoos prior to the shooting, and when someone shot at him and a bullet grazed the superintendent's head from outside his house, police identified Kelley as a suspect. At the time, he was supervisor of safety and security at a juvenile residential treatment facility in the district. Rumors circulated, and Tanoos began working with police and at one point told Kelley's supervisor, James Sinclair, that Kelley was the likely perpetrator.

While accused by Tanoos and investigated by police, Kelley was never charged with any crime and ultimately sued Tanoos for defamation.

This opinion in Kelley v. Tanoos, (http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/05020702fsj.pdf ), No. 84S01-0605-CV-195, affirms Vigo Superior Judge David Bolk's denial of Kelley's motion for summary judgment and the grant of summary judgment in Tanoos' favor. The Court of Appeals in 2005 reversed and remanded, holding that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding Kelley's defamation claim and that Tanoos' statements were not covered by a qualified privilege. The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments in September.

Justices declined to abolish the presumption of damages in a per se defamation action and also declined to hold a common law privilege existed because Tanoos was trying to apprehend the shooter and Sinclair appeared to be "repairing strained relations" between the juvenile facility and school corporation. However, the court found that the statements were made in an effort to assist law enforcement officials in investigating the crime and that protects them.

"Accordingly, it is well established that in Indiana, communications made to law enforcement to report criminal activity are qualified privilege," Justice Frank Sullivan wrote. "This so-called public interest privilege is intended to encourage private individuals to assist law enforcement with investigating and apprehending criminals."

In the ruling, Justice Sullivan cites the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 598 (1978), which he writes articulates a broader scope of protection than adopted in Indiana. It states: "The privilege ... affords protection to a private citizen who publishes defamatory matter to a third person even though he is not a law enforcement officer, under circumstances which, if true, would give the recipient a privilege to act for purposes of preventing a crime or of apprehending a criminal or fugitive from justice."
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  1. Welcome to Hendricks County where local and state statutes (especially Indiana Class C misdemeanors) are given a higher consideration than Federal statues and active duty military call-ups.

  2. If real money was spent on this study, what a shame. And if some air-head professor tries to use this to advance a career, pity the poor student. I am approaching a time that i (and others around me) should be vigilant. I don't think I'm anywhere near there yet, but seeing the subject I was looking forward to something I might use to look for some benchmarks. When finally finding my way to the hidden questionnaire all I could say to myself was...what a joke. Those are open and obvious signs of any impaired lawyer (or non-lawyer, for that matter), And if one needs a checklist to discern those tell-tale signs of impairment at any age, one shouldn't be practicing law. Another reason I don't regret dropping my ABA membership some number of years ago.

  3. The case should have been spiked. Give the kid a break. He can serve and maybe die for Uncle Sam and can't have a drink? Wow. And they won't even let him defend himself. What a gross lack of prosecutorial oversight and judgment. WOW

  4. I work with some older lawyers in the 70s, 80s, and they are sharp as tacks compared to the foggy minded, undisciplined, inexperienced, listless & aimless "youths" being churned out by the diploma mill law schools by the tens of thousands. A client is generally lucky to land a lawyer who has decided to stay in practice a long time. Young people shouldn't kid themselves. Experience is golden especially in something like law. When you start out as a new lawyer you are about as powerful as a babe in the cradle. Whereas the silver halo of age usually crowns someone who can strike like thunder.

  5. YES I WENT THROUGH THIS BEFORE IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION WITH MY YOUNGEST SON PEOPLE NEED TO LEAVE US ALONE WITH DCS IF WE ARE NOT HURTING OR NEGLECT OUR CHILDREN WHY ARE THEY EVEN CALLED OUT AND THE PEOPLE MAKING FALSE REPORTS NEED TO GO TO JAIL AND HAVE A CLASS D FELONY ON THERE RECORD TO SEE HOW IT FEELS. I WENT THREW ALOT WHEN HE WAS TAKEN WHAT ELSE DOES THESE SCHOOL WANT ME TO SERVE 25 YEARS TO LIFE ON LIES THERE TELLING OR EVEN LE SAME THING LIED TO THE COUNTY PROSECUTOR JUST SO I WOULD GET ARRESTED AND GET TIME HE THOUGHT AND IT TURNED OUT I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO NOT PROUD OF WHAT HAPPEN AND SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SEEKING MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR MY CHILD I AM DISABLED AND SICK OF GETTING TREATED BADLY HOW WOULD THEY LIKE IT IF I CALLED APS ON THEM FOR A CHANGE THEN THEY CAN COME AND ARREST THEM RIGHT OUT OF THE SCHOOL. NOW WE ARE HOMELESS AND THE CHILDREN ARE STAYING WITH A RELATIVE AND GUARDIAN AND THE SCHOOL WON'T LET THEM GO TO SCHOOL THERE BUT WANT THEM TO GO TO SCHOOL WHERE BULLYING IS ALLOWED REAL SMART THINKING ON A SCHOOL STAFF.

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