New York trial court dismisses slander per se claim against actor Alec Baldwin stemming from his comments made after dispute over Manhattan parking spot, finding comments to be merely opinion and did not accuse plaintiff driver of “serious crime.”
In November 2018, actor Alec Baldwin engaged in a widely publicized dispute with Wojciech Cieszkowski over a Manhattan parking spot. The conflict began when Cieszkowski allegedly stole a parking space that Baldwin’s wife had been saving and ended with Baldwin’s arrest after Cieszkowski told authorities that the actor punched him in the jaw, which Baldwin has denied. Baldwin was subsequently charged with third-degree attempted assault and second-degree harassment. Baldwin pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment in January 2019 and agreed to participate in an anger management program. Baldwin later appeared on The Ellen Show and The Howard Stern Show, where he discussed the incident.
Specifically, in February 2019 on The Ellen Show, Baldwin said, “Did I have an argument with the guy? Yeah. I thought he was going to run my wife over with his car when he was stealing my parking spot.” When Baldwin appeared on The Howard Stern Show in March 2019, he said, “[W]hen he aggressively takes this parking space, which was not the end of the world, I think he was going to hit my wife and my son. … I thought what he did was impolite, bordering on dangerous. He didn’t walk up to me and say, ‘Excuse me, I’ve been waiting here. I’d like to take this space.’ He just went zip!—really fast and really aggressive.”
Cieszkowski subsequently sued Baldwin for assault, battery and slander per se. Baldwin moved to dismiss the slander per se claim, which the court granted.
Defamation, the court explained, is (1) the making of a false statement; (2) published without privilege or authorization to a third party; (3) constituting fault as judged by, at minimum, a negligence standard; and (4) which causes special harm or constitutes defamation per se. Only statements that purport to convey facts about an individual are actionable; opinions, false or not, are constitutionally protected. Rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets and other imprecise language signal to a reasonable observer that no actual facts are being conveyed and the communication is not actionable.
Under the relevant requirements, slander per se actions are viable only where an alleged false statement “(1) charges the plaintiff with a serious crime; (2) tends to injure the plaintiff in his or her trade, business or profession, (3) imputes to the plaintiff a ‘loathsome disease’; or (4) imputes unchastity to a woman.” The court explained, however, that not every charge of unlawful behavior is slanderous per se; rather, there are many minor offenses that do not constitute a serious crime, even though they have a criminal element.
Analyzing Baldwin’s alleged statements against these requirements, the court held that those statements were neither factual nor accused Cieszkowski of a serious crime.
Cieszkowski argued that statements made by Baldwin imputed to him a serious crime—reckless endangerment and reckless driving. Citing the New York Court of Appeals 1992 opinion in Liberman v. Gelstein, the court distinguished between minor offenses such as traffic violations that would do little, if any, harm to a plaintiff’s reputation and serious crimes that are actionable as slander per se, including murder, burglary, larceny, arson, rape and kidnapping, and clarified that crimes of a “very serious nature” mean crimes that would exclude an individual from society. Here, the court found, Baldwin’s statements that Cieszkowski allegedly drove aggressively and fast do not rise to the level of a very serious crime that would exclude him from society and could not constitute slander per se.
Additionally, the court explained that Baldwin’s use of words such as “really fast,” “aggressive,” “zip” and “almost hit/run over my wife and child” constitute hyperbole—they are rhetorical illustrations and not statements of fact. Further, the court found that because Baldwin was simply describing his own impressions and state of mind, there could be no action for defamation under a slander per se theory, as mere opinions are not actionable. Finally, while Cieszkowski claims that the words used by Baldwin can be understood as accusing him of recklessness, the court asserted that the word reckless or similar language was not contained in the statements and that accusing someone of impoliteness, as Baldwin did with Cieszkowski, is not an accusation of a specific crime, as a properly pleaded complaint for slander per se would require. In sum, the court found Baldwin’s statements to be those of frustration with someone’s driving and not slander per se and, as such, dismissed the claim.