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Action for damages. Bibb State Court. Before Judge Phillips.
EBERHARDT, Presiding Judge.
1. To justify a recovery for libel it must appear that defamatory matter in writing, printing, pictures or signs has been published.
2. One who has engaged in credit transactions, and who seeks the extension of credit again consents, expressly or impliedly, that his former creditors be approached for information concerning their experience with him and that such information be given by them. In so doing, the former creditor does not wrongfully invade the applicant's privacy.
3. A corporation may not be held liable for slander by one of its employees or agents even if the utterance of the employee or agent is defamatory and in the interest of the corporation, unless it is further made to appear that the corporation has authorized or directed the employee or agent to use the very words in making such an utterance.
4. Where a tort is committed through mistake, ignorance, or mere negligence, the damages are limited to the actual injury received.
Melvin Molton and his wife, Mary, brought suit against Commercial Credit Corporation alleging that in June, 1967, they had been involved in an automobile wreck with an uninsured motorist, resulting in a total loss of their car; that at the time their car was financed by Commercial Credit Corporation and insured against collision loss by Allstate Insurance Company. Their debt to Commercial Credit was $2,400; and, because of a serious question as to coverage in connection with the Allstate policy, Commercial Credit had negotiated a settlement of the claim with it for $1,650, but had agreed that upon receipt of the negotiated amount it "would consider the Molton account satisfied."
Thereafter, in May, 1971, plaintiff applied to E. S. Watts & Company for a home loan, and Watts obtained from the Credit Bureau of Macon a report on plaintiffs to be used in considering whether the application would be approved. The credit report showed a charge-back of $69.32 at the Citizens & Southern Bank, and an outstanding indebtedness to Commercial Credit of $2,453 which it had charged off. The Moltons were called in and told of these items and Mrs. Molton went to Commercial Credit and asked them to clear that item since it had been settled by Allstate. The manager informed her that the file had been sent to Atlanta that he had no authority to remove information from the credit bureau and that this would have to come from Atlanta. He testified that upon receipt of the $1,650 from Allstate the Molton account was credited with it, showing an unpaid balance of $601.84, and that this amount was charged off; that the credit bureau makes calls frequently requesting the current information as to the status of customers' accounts and that it is related to them from the records. He had received a call from the credit bureau about the Molton account about the time Mrs. Molton went to him concerning the matter, and he had related to the credit bureau just what the Commercial Credit ledger showed--a final charge-off of $601.84.
Mrs. Molton went to the Citizens & Southern Bank and exhibited to them receipts or canceled checks for the $69.32 item, and it cleared that record with the credit bureau.
Mr. Molton had filed a voluntary bankruptcy proceeding some time previously, when he had been unemployed and creditors were pressing. However, he had obtained employment, arranged to pay his creditors and dismissed the bankruptcy proceeding.
When these matters had been satisfactorily explained to E. S. Watts & Company, it recommended the Moltons as a credit risk and they obtained the home loan.
The petition was brought in three counts. Count 1 sought a recovery for libel, Count 2 for an invasion of privacy, and Count 3 for slander. At the close of the evidence the court directed a verdict for defendant, and plaintiffs appeal.
1. We can find no basis for a charge of libel. "A libel is a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, or writing, or pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of an individual, and expose him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. The publication of the libelous matter is essential to recovery." Code 105-701.
It does not appear that Commercial Credit has published anything in writing, printing, pictures, signs, etc. concerning the plaintiffs. Not having done so, a recovery was unauthorized. Citizens & Southern Nat. Bank v. Hendricks, 176 Ga. 692 (168 SE 313, 87 ALR 230). The evidence is undisputed that the only information passed to the credit bureau from Commercial Credit was done by telephone when it related to the credit bureau what its record disclosed as to the Molton account. Libel is not committed by an oral defamation, even if the information passed to the credit bureau were found to be defamatory in nature.
But we see nothing in the information relayed by Commercial Credit to the credit bureau that could be said to be defamatory. It was simply a true statement that the Moltons had had an account with it and that a portion of the account had been written off. It had not received full payment of the account when the settlement was worked out between Commercial Credit and Allstate; and, in order to meet the agreement made with Allstate, Commercial Credit had written off the balance after crediting the settlement payment. Its file on the Moltons had been closed and no demand had ever been made against them for further payment. But it had suffered a loss on the account.
There was no "blacklisting" of the Moltons, as was the case in White v. Parks & Co., 93 Ga. 633 (20 SE 78).
2. We see no wrongful invasion of privacy. Plaintiffs made application for credit and authorized Watts to secure a credit report on them. In so doing there was an authorization, express or implied, that the credit bureau obtain information that might assist Watts in assessing plaintiffs' credit status in connection with their application for a home loan. That kind of information is obtainable from parties with whom the applicants had had credit dealings.
"The right of privacy . . . like every other right that rests in the individual, may be waived by him . . . [and] this waiver may be either express or implied." Pavesich v. New England Life Ins. Co., 122 Ga. 190, 199 (50 SE 68, 69 LRA 101, 106 ASR 104, 2 AC 561). A waiver resulted when Watts & Company were authorized to obtain the credit report. "Where she seeks and obtains credit from one such as the defendant, she may expect the creditor to investigate her and her reputation, particularly for paying her bills, to ascertain for whom she works, and to communicate with her employer for information about her." Gouldman-Taber Pontiac v. Zerbst, 213 Ga. 682, 684 (100 SE2d 881). Cf. Wrenn v. Truitt, 116 Ga. 708 (43 SE 52); Haggard v. Shaw, 100 Ga. App. 813 (2) (112 SE2d 286).
Assuming that an employee in the office of Commercial Credit gave incorrect information to the credit bureau when the bureau called to inquire about Commercial Credit's experience with the Moltons, in that the charge-off on the account had been only $601.84 instead of the $2,453, and assuming, but not deciding, that this misinformation was slanderous in nature, this record is completely barren of evidence that the employee had been authorized or directed to so misinform the credit bureau.
Within the requirement of Behre v. National Cash Register Co., 100 Ga. 213 (1), supra, there was a failure to prove slander by Commercial Credit.
4. Moreover, it appears that the plaintiffs wholly failed to show that they have been damaged. It appears that the home loan applied for was obtained, either on the basis of the credit report from the Macon credit bureau or in spite of it. Their credit standing has not been impaired.
Mrs. Molton urges that she was damaged because when she sought to get the manager of Commercial Credit to correct the information in the files of the credit bureau he replied that he had no authority to do so and that it would have to come from Atlanta. It appears from the record that she testified: "Q. Did he refuse to do so? A. No. Q. But he said that he would [get the authority from Atlanta]? A. That's right. Q. That was satisfactory to you, was it not? A. Yes. Q. And then you left the office. Did you go back to Commercial Credit any more? A. No. Q. Did you call up Commercial Credit any more after that and inquire about the letter? A. No. Q. Do you know whether or not, in fact, on that day or the next or any days thereafter, that anyone had a telephone conversation from the Credit Bureau to Commercial Credit about your account? A. I don't know." The manager testified that the next he heard from Mrs. Molton was when this lawsuit was served on him.
" 'If a tort is committed through mistake, ignorance, or mere negligence, the damages are limited to the actual injury received,' for vindictive or punitive damages are recoverable only when a defendant acts 'maliciously, wilfully, or with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard of the rights of others.' " State Mutual Life &c. Assn. v. Baldwin, 116 Ga. 855, 860 (43 SE 262).
A careful reading of the record does not reveal any basis for the award of damages on any theory, and there was no error in the direction of the verdict for the defendant.
Judgment affirmed. Deen and Clark, JJ., concur.
Harris, Russell & Watkins, Joseph H. Davis, for appellee.
Melton, McKenna,& House, Doye E. Green, for appellants.
Friday May 22 14:57 EDT

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