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Justices: statements fall within qualified privilege

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of a company and its employee in a defamation suit because qualified privilege precludes the defamation action.

Christine Dugan sued Mittal Steel and supervisor Jay Komorowski for defamation per se and intentional infliction of emotional distress after she was fired and later re-instated following a theft investigation at the company. She claimed Komorowski’s statements – paragraphs 6 and 7 in her complaint – support that he committed defamation per se. In paragraph 6, Dugan said Komorowski told the chief of security at the company that Dugan was stealing time and attempting to defraud the company. He also accused her of stealing an air compressor. In paragraph 7, she claimed that Komorowski told employees that Dugan was working on a core exchange (theft) of welding machines with her boss.

The word “theft” was added to give context to the statement, the court noted.

In Christine Dugan v. Mittal Steel USA, et al., No. 45S05-1002-CV-121, the high court upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of Mittal Steel and Komorowski. The justices agreed with the trial court that paragraph 6 constituted defamation per se and paragraph 7 did not. Paragraph 6 imputed criminal conduct or occupational misconduct; paragraph 7 implied it through the use of the word “theft,” but the actual words used by Komorowski don’t support a finding of defamation per se.

Even though paragraph 6 constitutes defamation per se, the Supreme Court also affirmed that the statements at issue were protected by qualified privilege. Komorowski went to the chief of security to express concerns about suspicious disappearances of company equipment. Komorowski had become concerned after seeing equipment disappear for a number of years.

“It is unreasonable and contrary to sound policy for the common interest qualified privilege for intracompany communications about theft of company property to apply only for statements made on personal knowledge and to exclude the reporting of information received from others,” wrote Justice Brent Dickson. “The designated evidence here clearly establishes that Komorowski's statements were based on an accumulation of several years of careful personal observations and gathering of information from others with first-hand knowledge and that his resulting concerns and opinions were expressed to the security chief in good faith.”
 

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