25 Years Since Decker v. Princeton Packet (Mistaken Report of One’s Death is Not Defamatory)

On August 8, 1989, the Supreme Court decided Decker v. Princeton Packet, 116 N.J. 418 (1989), one of the leading cases in New Jersey on defamation and infliction of emotional distress.  The Princeton Packet had published an obituary stating that Marcy Goldberg Decker had died suddenly at age 31.  The brief obituary included some other facts about Ms. Decker, all of which were true.  What was not true, however, was that she had died.  A few days later, in its next issue (the Packet appeared on Tuesday and Friday of each week, not daily), the Packet published a retraction, stating that “The Packet erroneously reported in Friday’s edition that Marcy Decker of Princeton died Feb. 11.  The obituary was false.  The Packet regrets the error and any inconvenience this may have caused Ms. Decker and her family.”

That might have been the end of the matter, but Ms. Decker, her son, and her mother sued the Packet for libel, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and gross negligence.  The Packet moved for summary judgment, asserting that the publication of a false obituary is, as a matter of law, not defamatory, and that the First Amendment barred the suit.  The Law Division granted summary judgment.  The Appellate Division affirmed.  When the case reached the Supreme Court, the decisions below were affirmed.  Justice Handler wrote a unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court.

In summary, “publication of a false obituary, the falsity of which relates only to the inaccurate or untrue report of death, is not defamatory per se as a matter of law.”  This was because, as Justice Handler pithily put it, “[d]eath is a natural state and demeans no one.” 

The emotional distress claim failed for similar reasons.  The alleged emotional distress suffered by the three plaintiffs was not “particularly foreseeable,” resulting as it did from “inadvertent conduct.”  Moreover, the type of distress allegedly suffered was “not sufficiently palpable, severe, or enduring,” but rather “approximates the subjective reactions of ordinary persons who feel victimized by the false report of death, namely, annoyance, embarrassent, and irritation.”  Under Buckley v. Trenton Savings Fund Society, 111 N.J. 355 (1988), that type of distress is insufficient.  Justice Handler quoted a New York appellate decision in a similar context, which stated that a premature report of death “may be unpleasant; it may annoy or irk the subject thereof; it may subject him to joke or to jest or to banter from those who knew him or knew of him, even to the extent of affecting his feelings; but this in itself is not enough.”

We often hear that Mark Twain laughed off a published statement that he had died by quipping “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  (In fact, the actual quote may have been “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” according to several sources).  Decker suggests that this type of reaction to a false report of one’s death, rather than a lawsuit, is the right approach.