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Got an accusation? New ruling puts you on notice


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Who hasn’t heard of the hundreds of sex-assault and -abuse allegations made against Hollywood, political, sports and even religious personalities lately?

Or all of the claims made in the so-called anti-Trump “dossier.”

There’s a new court decision that puts on notice anyone who might be tempted to make an allegation.

You need evidence.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has reinstated a defamation suit against a non-profit that assists victims of domestic violence, ruling that a woman’s claim that she is a survivor of domestic violence — for which evidence is absent — has been determined to be “defamatory per se.”

The case was brought by Kurt Maethner against his former wife, Jacquelyn Jorud, and the organization, Someplace Safe, which gave Jorud an award and publicized her claims.

There were no claims of domestic abuse or violence when the two divorced in 2010. Nor did Jorud ever obtain a restraining order against Maethner.

But in a fundraising banquet for Someplace Safe, a non-profit in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, four years after the divorce, she was honored as a “survivor of domestic abuse.”

Minnesota Public Radio reported Someplace Safe also publicized her claims with a press release and her photo, and area newspapers used the information.

A followup message intended to raise funds included Jorud’s statement, “I was asked to write a short article celebrating the fact of not just surviving domestic violence, but thriving through recovery.”

Maethner sued both her and the center. He appealed after a district judge threw the case out, ruling the speech was protected.

However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals returned the case to the lower court for the jury to determine Maethner’s defamation claims.

Appeals Judge Diane Bratvold wrote: “We conclude that the allegedly defamatory statements were not protected by a qualified privilege because they were made to raise funds for Someplace Safe and not to protect Jorud or to report a crime. Next, we decide Someplace Safe owed a duty to exercise reasonable care before publishing Jorud’s statements. Finally, Maethner produced sufficient evidence of damages to survive summary judgment.”

It turns out that Jorud had contacted Someplace Safe several times during her divorce for advice, and the center later honored her for “inspiring others to stand against violence.” But the court ruling said while Jorud claimed that there was abuse, Maethner denied it.

The appeals court found a banquet and newsletter “were not the proper occasion to disseminate statements alleging criminal conduct, nor did the fundraising purpose for both of these activties reflect a proper motive for doing so.”

The decision reversing the lower court’s dismissal found Jorusd “admits that her statements on Facebook and in her article would be understood as describing criminal behavior by Maethner” and “Minnesota has classified such statements as defamation per se.”

Someplace Safe might end up facing liability, the appeals court said, because it “admitted that it did not make any effort to ‘verify or corroborate or substantiate the statements made in the survivor stories.’”

The judges wrote, “We agree with Maethner that a reasonable person encountering references to ‘surviving domestic violence,’ ‘being stalked,’ and ‘getting out of an unhealthy, threatening and dangerous relationship’ would understand them to be accusations of criminal activity.”

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