On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-1990-06.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: C.L. Miniman, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: March 11, 2009
Before Judges Cuff, C.L. Miniman and King.
Plaintiffs Karen Petersen (Petersen) and Freedom Farms appeal from the July 20, 2007, grant of summary judgment to defendants Jane Meggitt (Meggitt), Horse News, Hunterdon County Democrat, Penn Jersey Advance, Tri Town News, The Examiner, and Greater Media Newspapers (collectively, the media defendants) dismissing the remainder of plaintiffs' defamation complaint against them. At that time, the complaint consisted of four remaining alleged defamatory statements. Two previous inter-locutory orders had dismissed other portions of plaintiffs' complaint containing other alleged defamatory statements;*fn1 however, plaintiffs did not appeal those orders.*fn2 Thus, we review only the four alleged defamatory statements dismissed on July 20, 2007. The primary issue on appeal is whether the four alleged statements fall within the ambit of the fair-comment privilege. We conclude that they do and affirm.
Meggitt wrote an article entitled "One Horse Dead, Others Seized in New Jersey Neglect Case" that was published in the December 2005 issue of Horse News, Volume 14, Number 9. The article in pertinent part is reproduced below with the statements alleged to be defamatory in paragraphs 25, 29, 31, and 33 of plaintiff's complaint underscored:*fn3
UPPER FREEHOLD TWP., NJ -- Seven thor-oughbreds were seized by the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA) last month from a farm on Route 537 in Upper Freehold Township. On Nov. 19, their owner, Bridgeton resident Denise Blauth pleaded guilty in municipal court to failure to provide proper food for three of the horses kept on the farm. She was ordered to pay $1,000 in fines and $500 in restitution to the NJSPCA for the horses' care.
Blauth owned eight horses kept at Freedom Farm, including a mare who died on Oct. 21 and whose carcass was left to rot in a field for 10 days. Blauth rough-boarded at the farm, which is owned by Karen Petersen. Petersen was not charged in the incident and did not appear at the court hearing. NJSPCA Officer Stewart Goldman [Goldman] said five of the horses have been forfeited to the NJSPCA, and Blauth will be permitted to take two of the horses to her 15-acre farm in Cumberland County, where she will be subject to random NJSPCA inspections. He said the issue came down to money, and a "she said/she said" situation between Blauth and Petersen.
Township Animal Control Officer Mary Klink was the preliminary investigator on the case. She reported at the hearing that a cruelty investigation was conducted on Oct. 22 at the farm, where the seven thor-oughbred horses were found emaciated, some near terminal starvation. A bill from Petersen to Blauth in the amount of $10,728 was presented in the case, although there was no evidence presented that Petersen had filed a stableman's lien in order to recoup the money owed her.
Blauth said she would take responsibility for the horses' condition, but felt it was the farm's fault. She said she owed Petersen $1,000 a year ago and wanted to take the horses off the property, but Petersen would not allow the horses to leave until the bill was paid. Blauth claimed that Petersen then put all of the horses, regardless of age or sex, together in one field with no shelter. She says it is possible that the fillies are now pregnant. Petersen did not respond to phone calls, and in an e-mail said she was out of town until later this month.
Goldman said that farm owners should make arrangements for animals in a bad board bill situation if they do not want to assume the burden for their care, and that appropriate action was not taken in this case. The seized animals were examined by veterinarian Dr. Barbara Delaney, Freehold. Goldman said horses on the farm not owned by Blauth looked fine.
Petersen would not permit the removal of the dead mare owned by Blauth, a brood-mare named Carrie. The township agreed to pay the $350 fee for the carcass removal and will pursue reimbursement from Blauth. The horse had been dead for 10 days when it was finally removed and was being eaten by vultures. Deputy Animal Control Officer John Klink told Petersen the carcass must be removed or buried. M&S Pet Removal, Penns Grove, requires payment up front before picking up the carcass, and Petersen turned the removal truck away when it arrived on Oct. 31. Animal control then got permission from the township to have the horse removed at municipal expense. According to Earl Guilfoyle, who lived at the farm at the time, the mare died on Oct. 21, of unknown causes. He said the mare was lying in the field of the racetrack at the farm, which was used as a horse paddock. Blauth alleged that she had sent someone earlier to remove the horse, but Petersen turned that person away.
With respect to the first defamatory statement, "Petersen would not allow the horses to leave until the bill was paid," plaintiffs alleged that Petersen never made such a statement and that it was Blauth who would not remove her horses. With respect to the second defamatory statement, "Petersen would not permit the removal of the dead mare owned by Blauth," plaintiffs alleged that they wanted the horse removed, but weather conditions made removal impossible. With respect to the third defamatory statement, "Deputy Animal Control Officer John Klink told Petersen the carcass must be removed or buried," plaintiffs alleged that John Klink told Petersen that she could not bury the horse on her property. Finally, with respect to the fourth defamatory statement, "Petersen turned the removal truck away when it arrived on Oct. 31," plaintiffs alleged that the statement was false and "demonstrates the inconsistencies" in ...