A decision last week from the North Carolina Court of Appeals illustrates an important principle concerning the nature of appellate review in defamation actions -- that non-final orders are ordinarily not subject to immediate appeal by the plaintiff. The case of Nguyen v. Taylor involved a host of libel and related claims brought by five Greensboro police officers against a rapper, Jayceon Taylor, known as "The Game", arising out of an October 28, 2005, incident that occurred in a Greensboro mall. Taylor was arrested after he and his entourage were asked to leave the mall and an altercation ensued.
Following his release on bail, Taylor stated to a reporter that the officers involved "thought I was Rodney King." In addition, footage of the altercation appeared on a DVD entitled "stop snitchin' stop lying," which included an image of one of the plaintiff officers. The back cover of the DVD stated that it included "the full 15 minute footage of The Game being wrongfully arrested in North Carolina." A website contained similar assertions, and the footage also appeared on youtube.
The officers sued Taylor, other members of his entourage, and a number of entities related to Taylor, alleging 17 different claims. These claims fell into seven broad categories: (1) defamation claims based on the statement Taylor made to the reporter; (2) defamation claims based on statements appearing on the website; (3) defamation claims based on the statements appearing on the DVD; (4) claims relating to alleged misleading editing of the footage on the DVD; (5) misappropriation claims based on the image on the DVD; (6) misappropriation claims based on the footage appearing on the DVD and on youtube; and (7) unfair and deceptive trade practices claims. The defendants, including Taylor, whom plaintiffs served and who were not in default moved to dismiss. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss in part and denied it in part, dismissing some of the claims.
The plaintiffs attempted to appeal the trial court's decision to the Court of Appeals. Because the decision was not final -- certain claims against certain defendants remain pending -- it is known as an "interlocutory" order. Under North Carolina law, interlocutory orders are ordinarily not subject to immediate appeal. However, if the decision touches upon a substantial right that would be prejudiced absent an immediate appeal, the appeal may proceed. Media defendants often rely on this principle to assert their right to appeal immediately trial-court decisions denying motions to dismiss or for summary judgment in cases implicating First Amendment issues, such as in defamation actions involving the New York Times v. Sullivan actual malice standard.
In the Nguyen case, it was the defamation plaintiffs who asserted the right to an immediate appeal of a decision dismissing parts of their complaint. The plaintiffs' theory was that because the remaining claims arose out of the same set of facts as the dismissed claims, proceeding to trial now risked inconsistent verdicts. In contrast, the plaintiffs argued, if their appeal were heard first, those claims, if any, that were reinstated following appellate review could proceed to trial along with the claims the trial court did not dismiss.
The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiffs' argument and dismissed their appeal as an improper interlocutory appeal. In analyzing the various claims plaintiffs had alleged in their complaint, the court held that while all the causes of action arose out of the same incident, the various claims were distinct. In other words, even though the evidence bearing on the dismissed and non-dismissed claims may overlap to some degree, those claims involved either distinct legal elements or distinct parties, or both. As a result, according to the court, "plaintiffs have failed to show that they will be prejudiced by the possibility of inconsistent verdicts in two separate proceedings."
The lesson of the Nguyen case is two-fold. First, its outcome is consistent with a pattern of appellate jurisprudence that looks closely at interlocutory orders to determine whether in fact they are subject to immediate appeal. Second, it confirms there is value in winning dismissal of some, if not all, of the causes of action in defamation cases involving many claims for relief. Having those claims dismissed may well narrow the scope of the issues to be litigated, while at the same time not necessarily subjecting the defendant to a lengthy detour to an appellate court.