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N.J. Court Shields Consumer Reporting

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

N.J. Court Shields Consumer Reporting

Article excerpt

IN A DECISION fortifying protection for consumer reporting in New Jersey, the state's highest court has upheld a lower court's dismissal of a libel suit against the Bergen County, N.J., Record over a 1988 investigative story saying a lawn-mower repair shop "ripped off" customers.

The appeal centered on whether the alleged unscrupulous business practices constituted a public interest. This would require the shop to prove actual malice, a higher standard of responsibility, meaning the paper knew the story was wrong or doubted it.

In a unanimous ruling in Turf Lawn Mower Repair Inc. vs. the Bergen Record Corp., the New Jersey Supreme Court held that when news stories touch on criminal or consumer fraud or a substantial regulatory violation, they become "of legitimate and compelling public concern." Therefore plaintiffs must prove actual malice, instead of the easier "negligence standard" that would normally apply to a repair shop.

The Record said Turf deceived and ripped off customers, charged for work never done, billed for new parts when old parts were installed, and performed unnecessary work. The story quoted former employees, customers and a competitor, and cited tests the newspaper conducted to prove unneeded work was performed.

The shop in Teaneck and owner John L. Gloria sued, alleging libel, interference with business, and emotional distress.

The case against the Record and investigative editor Bruce Locklin was dismissed before trial on summary judgment, because the case did not meet the malice standard for libel. …

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