Good Intentions Gone Wrong: Does an Attempt to Bring Awareness to Dangers of Heroin Abuse Give Rise to a Claim for Libel?

Felisa Sue Moore, KLJ Staff Editor[1]

Eva Holland posted a photo on Facebook with her children and their deceased father, Mike Settles, in an open coffin.[2] Holland’s proclaimed purpose for the post was a seemingly noble one; she wanted to inform Facebook users of the “cold hard truth that heroin kills.”[3] Holland stated that she was certain the photo would make others feel uncomfortable, but the purpose behind the photo “was to show the reality of [heroin] addiction.”[4] The message was widely received by many Facebook users; as of this writing, Holland’s photo has been shared 250,000 times and has received 100 comments.[5]

Despite Holland’s good intentions to dissuade Facebook users from abusing heroin, her claims about Settles’ alleged drug abuse have not been verified by toxicology reports.[6] The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office indicated that the cause of death has not yet been determined.[7] Settles was released from a rehabilitation center in December, after having received treatment for the heroin addiction that he developed from his abuse of pain medicine.[8]

Stephanie Evans-Flinchum, Settles’ aunt, indicated that she “hated the fact that it’s been assumed the he died of heroin overdose before the coroner’s report is released.”[9] Flinchum went on to say that she understood the rationale behind Holland’s decision to post the photo to “spread awareness and save lives.”[10] But, Flinchum stated that she did not agree with the decision to post the photo before Settle’s caused of death was determined.[11]

Settles’ family members may have a legitimate reason to be concerned about Holland’s decision to post the photo on Facebook. Even though Holland’s stated goal was to bring awareness of the dangers of heroin abuse, Settles’ family may have grounds for a libel action. In Ohio, libel is defined as “any statement that reflects upon the character of [the plaintiff] by bringing him into ridicule, hatred, or contempt, or affects him injuriously in his trade or profession.”[12] In order to bring an action for libel, the family must show that the “defamatory matter was published or spoken to the plaintiff.”[13] To combat the claims, Holland would be required to “allege and prove the truth of the matter charged as defamatory.”[14]

The requirements for a libel action against Holland seem to have been met. Holland’s post clearly subjects Settles’ character to “ridicule, hatred, or contempt.” This can be proved by the words of Holland’s post, as well as the 100 comments made by other persons concerning the photo. Even though Settles’ family may be able to bring an action for libel against Holland, she may be able to rebut the claim. If Holland is able support her allegations with proof that the cause of Settle’s death was a heroin overdose, it will be a complete defense against the family’s libel claims.[15] In all, the controversy could have been avoided by simply waiting for the toxicology reports to confirm Settles’ cause of death before attempting to deter persons from using heroin.


 

[1] J.D. expected May 2017.

[2] Katy Murphy, Cincinnati Mom Poses with Children and Deceased Father, Local12 (Sept. 16, 2015, 01:26 PM), http://www.local12.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/Cincinnati-mom-poses-with-children-and-deceased-father-to-spread-message-204453.shtml.

[3] Joel Christie, Women Whose Husband Died of Heroin Overdose Smiles for a Photo by his Casket with their Two Young Children ‘to Show the Reality of Addiction’, Dailymail (Sept. 15, 2015, 12:42 AM), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3234153/Hiding-facts-going-epidemic-going-Woman-husband-died-heroin-overdose-smiles-photo-casket-children-reality-addiction.html.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Katy Murphy, Cincinnati Mom Poses with Children and Deceased Father, Local12 (Sept. 16, 2015, 01:26 PM), http://www.local12.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/Cincinnati-mom-poses-with-children-and-deceased-father-to-spread-message-204453.shtml.

[7] Id.

[8] Joel Christie, Women Whose Husband Died of Heroin Overdose Smiles for a Photo by his Casket with their Two Young Children ‘to Show the Reality of Addiction’, Dailymail (Sept. 15, 2015, 12:42 AM), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3234153/Hiding-facts-going-epidemic-going-Woman-husband-died-heroin-overdose-smiles-photo-casket-children-reality-addiction.html.

[9] Katy Murphy, Cincinnati Mom Poses with Children and Deceased Father, Local12 (Sept. 16, 2015, 01:26 PM), http://www.local12.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/Cincinnati-mom-poses-with-children-and-deceased-father-to-spread-message-204453.shtml.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Becker v. Toulmin, 138 N.E.2d 391, 395 (Ohio 1956).

[13] Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2739.01 (2015).

[14] Id. § 2739.02.

[15] Id.