February 26, 2011

Recipe for dismissal

A New York state trial court this week tossed out a defamation claim brought by cookbook author Missy Chase Lapine against comedian Jerry Seinfeld, apparently concluding that Lapine's recipe for legal relief had the wrong ingredients.

The court's 24-page decision and order in Lapine v. Seinfeld also dismissed claims against Harper Collins, which passed on publishing Lapine's cookbook (later published by Running Press as The Sneaky Chef) and then published a cookbook by Seinfeld's wife, Jessica, Deceptively Delicious.

Both books offered ways to sneak veggies and other healthy foods into meals for kids.

Lapine alleged that Seinfeld used an appearance on the David Letterman show to launch an attack on Lapine due to mounting charges of plagiarism concerning Jessica Seinfeld's book. Lapine said in her complaint that on Letterman Seinfeld made outrageously false statements about her mental health. The allegedly defamatory statements included calling Lapine  "a wacko" and "a nut," stating that she was "angry and hysterical," and "a mentally unhinged stalker" of the Seinfelds, and observing that "many of the three-name people do become assassins."

The court noted that expressions of opinion are constitutionally protected, and then found it "inconceivable" that a reasonable viewer would believe that Seinfeld's statements conveyed facts about Lapine.

Lapine argued in opposing Seinfled's motion to dismiss that Seinfeld defamed her by conveying the "unmistakable message" to the TV viewers that "Lapine had fabricated opportunistic allegations of plagiarism against his wife."

In rejecting that argument, the court explained that Seinfeld's are protected not because they were made in a comedic context or were themselves comedy, but because they were statements of opinion that are not actionable as a mater of law.

The court concluded by stating that to decide otherwise in this case would deny "protection of the First Amendment to persons who publicly defend themselves against what they believe to be baseless public charges or lawsuits."

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