CBS Station's Identity Mistake Won't Result in Defamation

KDKA-TV pictured the wrong Christopher Ghrist

CBS Broadcasting has prevailed in a lawsuit involving a Pittsburgh affiliate's bad error to show Christopher William Ghrist as the guy who was arrested on drug charges and other offenses.

In truth, it was Christopher Wayne Ghrist who was arrested, then escaped custody, triggering a manhunt, where he was captured by police with a loaded firearm.

CBS' KDKA-TV pictured the wrong guy after acquiring a photo of one of the many individuals named Christopher W. Ghrist in the Westmoreland County Prison database. The plaintiff sued for defamation after receiving more than 110 messages from people he knew, after his girlfriend removed her child from his physical custody when the news broke, and after unsuccessfully attempting to get the station to rectify its error.

Mistaken identity sometimes happens. (Ask Scott Weiland.)

But the takeaway from a judge's decision Thursday isn't about the importance of getting things right, but about the importance of doing things in a timely fashion.

The plaintiff's face was shown in a broadcast that aired Oct. 15, 2011. He didn't file suit until Oct. 4, 2013.

Given that Pennsylvania has a one-year statute of limitations, as well as what's known as a "single publication rule," where the original publishing of defamatory material and not the republished circulation counts, Ghrist didn't sue soon enough. This is true even though the broadcast story was put online.

U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak says it is "troubling" that Ghrist attempted to contact that station to no avail, but writes that "in these circumstances, where the allegedly harmful publication began on or about October 15, 2011, and the content of that publication remained the same thereafter, even on the internet website, the single publication rule provides that the measuring point for counting down the one year statute of limitations also began on that date, and was not 'refreshed' each day thereafter that the offending story was accessible online."

Ghrist also pled a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which also was barred by the statute of limitations. Even if it wasn't, the judge says the claim would fail because the plaintiff didn't allege any physical harm, though the plaintiff might have prevailed on the other factors measuring the station's conduct.

In short, the plaintiff loses but will at least be able to point out the ruling that sets the record straight.

Twitter: @eriqgardner