Punitive Damages for Calling a Person ''Thief''

The law is settled that the mere use of the label "thief" is insufficient. Every accusation of "theft" does not rise to the required level. One of the earliest Mississippi authorities that discussed these issues held that accusing someone of theft, when the act could not be "a felonious stealing," is not actionable per se. Cock v. Weatherby, 13 Miss. (5 S. & M.) 333, 337 (1845). The Farley court recognized exactly that by defining the first category of actionable per se slanders as only those charging a "criminal offense involving moral turpitude and infamous punishment." No matter the criminal label, the charge must be a significant one: One who publishes a slander that imputes to another conduct constituting a criminal offense is subject to liability to the other without proof of special harm if the offense imputed is of a type which, if committed in the place of publication, would be (a) punishable by imprisonment in a state or federal institution, or (b) regarded by public opinion as involving moral turpitude. RESTATEMENT OF TORTS (SECOND) 571. In other words, the mere possibility that an act could be penalized under a criminal code is not enough. Falsely accusing someone of exceeding a highway speed limit is an example of an accusation of a crime that is not actionable per se. Only when the crime falsely imputed is of "major and serious a character . . . is [it] actionable without proof of special damage." Id. at cmt f. "This is not true of crimes punishable by imprisonment in the county jail or in a workhouse or other similar institution. Many petty misdemeanors, not regarded in the eyes of the community as highly disgraceful, are made punishable by imprisonment . . . . Unless these crimes are regarded, under Clause [ 571](b), as involving moral turpitude, the accusation of their commission is not actionable per se." Id. "Moral turpitude has been defined as inherent baseness or vileness of principle in the human heart. It means, in general, shameful wickedness, so extreme a departure from ordinary standards of honesty, good morals, justice or ethics as to be shocking to the moral sense of the community." Id. cmt. g. Claiming that this volunteer fireman took two notebook pad pages that he himself had written upon simply does not rise to a crime of shameful wickedness and extreme departure from community standards. These considerations are recognized in Mississippi slander law. Prior to Farley's designation of five categories of actionable per se slanders, Chief Justice Sydney Smith had discussed one of them in an appeal of damages awarded for a false charge that another person had taken property. The defendant's accusation was that after another person's death, the accuser "did not find in the [deceased's] house everything that was inventoried, and that Mrs. Pizatti, meaning the plaintiff, had taken property that did not belong to her out of the house," all of which implied that Pizatti was a thief. Woodville v. Pizatti, 119 Miss. 85, 80 So. 491 (1919). One person who heard the statement specifically recalled that the defendant had said that Pizatti "had taken part [of the property] away" that should have been in the house. Id., 80 So. at 492. The plaintiff Pizatti argued that these words were "actionable per se under the common law, for the reason that they charge her with the commission of a crime." Id. The court agreed that allegations of a crime are actionable per se, "but only such as charge him with the commission of an act which, if true, would subject him to punishment-- 'for a crime involving moral turpitude, or would make him liable to a punishment infamous in character, or to one which, if not necessarily infamous, would bring disgrace upon him.' 17 R. C. L. 265." Id. Even if a crime had been alleged, which the court doubted, it was not a crime of moral turpitude or one involving punishment infamous or disgraceful in character. Therefore, a peremptory instruction for the defendant should have been given. Id.