Defamation – Publication – McDaniel/Burney Rule

Watters and Yarbrough v. Birmingham Hematology and Oncology Associates, LLC, etc., et al., [Ms. SC-2022-0907, Oct. 13, 2023] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2023). The Court (Stewart, J.; Parker, C.J., and Wise, Sellers, and Cook, JJ., concur) affirms the Jefferson Circuit Court’s summary judgment in favor of Birmingham Hematology and Oncology Associates, LLC (“Alabama Oncology”) and Brian Adler in Karen Watters and Cheryl Yarbrough’s (“the plaintiffs”) suit for defamation and wantonness.

The plaintiffs argued that defendants defamed them through internal ‘republication’ of an anonymous letter alleging that the plaintiffs had engaged in illegal and unethical behavior. The Court grouped the alleged communications into three categories: (A) the receipt or transmission of a verbatim copy of the letter by management; (B) communications regarding the existence of the letter, but not its allegedly defamatory contents; and (C) external legal counsel’s presentation to management and the owners of the business of counsel’s internal investigation and resulting legal findings. Ms. *9.

The Court notes that the “main element at issue in this case is the element of publication.” Ms. *12. Accordingly, the Court holds “all the alleged communications, whether framed as publication or a republication, fall under the McDaniel/Burney ‘no publication’ rule as communications between employees.” Ms. *20, citing McDaniel v. Crescent Motors, Inc., 249 Ala. 330, 31 So. 2d 343 (1947); and Burney v. Southern Ry. Co., 276 Ala. 637, 639, 165 So. 2d 726, 728 (1964). Thus, the trial court correctly determined that there was no publication, or republication, because all the alleged communications occurred between Alabama Oncology employees and management. Ms. *22.

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