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Action for damages. Fulton Superior Court. Before Judge Pye.
1. The proof offered failed to conclusively establish that a contractual provision was applicable. Thus, the trial judge correctly denied defendant's motion for summary judgment as to its counterclaim.
2. A charge of ignorance or want of skill in a particular transaction is not actionable where it is not such as to import gross ignorance or unskillfulness. The trial judge erred in not granting the defendant's motion for summary judgment as to a portion of plaintiff's claim which sought to recover for libel.
Ed Smith & Sons, Inc. brought this complaint against Holder Construction Company in the Fulton Superior Court. The complaint as amended alleged that: the plaintiff corporation is a subcontractor specializing in dynamite blasting and was employed to blast two small areas of rock to be removed at the Phipps Plaza construction site; that prior to performing under a subcontract with the defendant corporation, plaintiff consulted with an agent of defendant as to what might be damaged by the explosion and was advised that the closest thing was a building approximately 20 feet away; that well known to the defendant but unknown to the plaintiff, a water line had been installed under the blast area; that the defendant published a letter to five individuals stating the plaintiff came on the job to do the blasting and failed to inquire as to the hazards of blasting at the construction site and that, as a result, the plaintiff was responsible for the damage caused to the water line. It was further alleged that a statement contained in the publication was untrue and tended to injure the plaintiff in his trade and was libelous per se; that the plaintiff was held up to ridicule as an incompetent and dangerous dynamite subcontractor. The complaint sought recovery of damages for the libel and also for money owed to the plaintiff pursuant to the terms of the subcontract with the defendant.
The defendant filed its answer and counterclaim seeking recovery for the amount it was required to pay as a result of the damage to the water line. It was alleged that the plaintiff was legally responsible for the damage done, both under common law principles and under the terms of the contract between the plaintiff and defendant. The defendant moved for a summary judgment as to the plaintiff's complaint and also as to its counterclaim. The trial judge overruled the motion on all grounds. Upon a certificate for immediate review being entered, the plaintiff appeals to this court.
1. The contract between the plaintiff and the defendant which is the principal basis for the defendant's counterclaim contains the following provision: "Subcontractor agrees to indemnify and hold the contractor and the owner wholly harmless from any damages, claims, demands or suits by any person or persons, arising out of or resulting from the execution of the work provided in this subcontract or occurring in connection therewith, excluding liability for negligence of the contractor or owner, except in connection with general supervision of work performed by the subcontractor." The proof offered, including the documents and the deposition of the president of plaintiff corporation, failed to establish as a matter of law the applicability of the situation of the case sub judice to the above quoted provision of the contract. The trial judge correctly held: "It has not been made to appear that all issues as to causation have been eliminated."
2. The letter which is the basis of the main suit for libel contains the following language: "Ed Smith and Sons came on our job to do the blasting and did not inquire of our supervisory personnel on the job if there were any underground exposures that existed before they started the blasting operations. Therefore, I feel that responsibility for payment of this invoice belongs to our subcontractor on this project. Please send them an invoice for $857.30, which was your repair cost." The defendant contends that it is not liable based on several grounds, among which are: (1) that a corporation may not be libeled; (2) that the statement alleged to be the basis of the libel was only with regard to one act and was not properly subject of libel; (3) that the statement was true and was therefore not libel; (4) that the statement was a privileged communication, being made "on the part of the speaker to protect his own interest in a matter where it is concerned." Code 105-709 (3).
While there is no Georgia authority directly in point, several cases from other states, which have basically the same common law definitions of libel as Georgia, have held that a corporation may be libeled with regard to its business reputation. See cases cited in 53 CJS 81, Libel and Slander, 34; 50 AmJur2d 837, Libel and Slander, 315.
However, we pretermit an express determination of this point since another ground of defense is determinative of the issues in this case. New York has been the primary authority for what may be termed the "single instance test" with regard to libel, that is, language imputing to a business or professional man ignorance or mistake on a single occasion and not accusing him of general ignorance or lack of skill is not actionable per se. This rule is applicably expressed in Mason v. Sullivan, 271 N. Y. S. 2d 314, 316: "The 'single instance' rule has application to charges which imply that plaintiff is unfit to carry on his profession or calling. In essence it is that a charge that plaintiff in a single instance was guilty of a mistake, impropriety or other unprofessional conduct does not imply that he is generally unfit." See Smith v. Staten Island Advance Co., 95 N. Y. S. 2d 188; Amelkin v. Commercial fading Co., 259 N. Y. S. 2d 396 (affirmed 214 NE2d 379); Blende v. Hearst Publications, Inc., 200 Wash. 426 (93 P2d 733).
"A charge of ignorance or want of skill in a particular transaction is not actionable, unless the charge is such as imports gross ignorance or unskillfulness."
The statement contained in the letter can only be construed to impute at law mere negligence on the part of the plaintiff as to a single transaction. This was not sufficient to impute gross negligence or unskillfulness to the plaintiff or to reflect generally on its skill in the trade and thus did not constitute libel.
Pannell, Judge, concurring specially. I concur in the judgment. See Brown v. McInvale, 118 Ga. App. 375 (163 SE2d 854).
Long, Weinberg, Ansley & Wheeler, Palmer H. Ansley, J. Kenneth Moorman, Zachry, Dean & Setlif, Herbert B. Zachry, for appellee.
Neely, Freeman & Hawkins, Edgar A. Neely, Jr., for appellant.
ARGUED JANUARY 8, 1971 -- DECIDED JUNE 18, 1971.
Friday May 22 15:54 EDT

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