On appeal from the Law Division, Superior Court, Middlesex County.
Morton I. Greenberg, Long and Havey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Long, J.A.D.
[206 NJSuper Page 84] On this appeal, plaintiffs Robert L. and Wayne L. Karnell challenge the entry of summary judgment in favor of defendants Rita Campbell, John Penna, Carollee Rosenblatt and Eileen Wolfskehl in connection with the complaint for defamation plaintiffs instituted against them. The complaint alleged that defendants had maliciously written letters containing false and
defamatory statements about plaintiffs which injured plaintiffs' business reputations. It sought compensatory and punitive damages and other relief.
All defendants filed a joint answer denying the allegations of the complaint. Thereafter, Campbell, Penna and Rosenblatt filed an amended answer in which they also denied that the letters were written maliciously and raised several separate defenses, including that plaintiffs were public figures and that defendants' statements constituted fair comment, made in good faith, without knowledge of any falsity or disregard for truth. Eventually all defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the publications at issue were expressions of "pure opinion." Plaintiffs cross-moved for summary judgment. The trial judge determined that the letters were indeed expressions of "pure opinion" and not actionable and granted defendants' motion, concomitantly denying plaintiffs' motion. This appeal ensued in which plaintiffs claim that the trial judge erred in determining, as a matter of law, that the letters were not actionable.
The letters which form the basis of plaintiffs' claim were published in the P.D. Review, a newspaper serving Piscataway and Dunellen and involve the former New Market school property and a lot adjoining the school property in Piscataway which plaintiffs were developing through their real estate development firm, the Central Leasing Company. The vacant lot was purchased by plaintiffs for $35,000. Plaintiffs' proposal for development of these properties, the price which they paid for the New Market property, and an alleged underappraisal of the vacant lot leading to its being undervalued for sale to the plaintiffs ultimately became the source of heated debate in the community.
In connection with the New Market property, Rosenblatt wrote a letter which was published on December 16, 1982. In it she said that on December 8, 1982 Piscataway had been "raped." She explained that because the town had been "stupid
enough" to trust plaintiffs and rezone the New Market site commercial, eliminating the necessity for a variance, it was getting "another strip mall" instead of the quiet business offices residents had been promised. The town had also been "robbed," according to Rosenblatt, because while undeveloped commercial land could sell for $200,000, the price paid for the New Market property, with improvements and structure included, "amounts to theft." She expressed the hope that the town would fight the planned alterations and void the zoning change "obtained by the developer under false pretenses." According to her, if it did not fight, the town would be not a rape victim, but a "cheap prostitute."
In a lengthy letter published the same day, Penna criticized the planning board for approving plaintiffs' plans to pave over grassland and develop the New Market property into another retail shopping area which, according to Penna, would cause traffic jams, air pollution and storm sewer overloads and thus "only serve to congest and not benefit us." He said that the township and the New Market area had been "duped by the clever maneuvering of very shrewd businessmen" who bought the New Market School and adjacent land at a very low price. According to Penna, "[a]llowing the Karnell group [plaintiffs] the right to build retail stores on our grassland only serves to fatten the Karnell bank account (I can see the smiles on their faces) while, once again, the New Market area gets dumped on." Penna said that the mayor and the planning board could not be trusted in matters concerning the New Market site.
Wolfskehl's letter, which appeared the same day as those of Penna and Rosenblatt, criticized the plaintiffs' development plan and the planning board for approving it in spite of public opposition. She said that "Mr. Karnell seems to have no difficulty in getting what he wants," e.g., a variance to build more parking spaces. She also remarked that citizens who oppose the retail store development plan should be informed that "they have not exhausted every means to stop Karnell from carrying out his plan to satisfy his greed." Wolfskehl
complained that a planning board clerk had misinformed her that stores were not part of the plaintiffs' proposed project, and questioned whether the board chose to continue the meeting and make their decision late at night, after many of the citizens had left, because they feared there would be a greater turnout if another meeting were held.
Campbell's letter was published in the P.D. Review on February 24, 1983. This letter said in part:
At the Piscataway Township Council meeting of February 1, Robert Karnell, purchaser of a 0.9-acre lot adjacent to the New Market School, portrayed himself as a much put-upon man. He said that he had been slandered and libeled and he attempted to win sympathy by stating that his wife had been hospitalized for a year and that he himself had had a heart attack and had also been hospitalized. He said that ...