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24765 - John Doe v. Berkley Publishers

Davis Adv. Sh. No. 8
S.E. 2d


THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

In The Supreme Court

    John Doe,         Respondent,

        v.

    Berkeley Publishers,

    d/b/a The Berkeley

    Independent,         Petitioner.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO

THE COURT OF APPEALS

Appeal From Berkeley County

R. Markley Dennis, Jr., Judge

Opinion No. 24765

Heard November 6, 1997 - Filed February 23, 1998

REVERSED

Jay Bender and Charles E. Baker, both of Baker,
Barwick, Ravenel & Bender, L.L.P., of Columbia,
for petitioner.
Thomas R. Goldstein, of Belk, Cobb, Infinger &
Goldstein, P.A., of Charleston, for respondent.

        FINNEY, C.J.: We granted certiorari to review that part of

the Court of Appeals' opinion which reversed the trial court's order

directing a verdict for petitioner on respondent's invasion of privacy claim.

Doe v. Berkeley Publishers, d/b/a The Berkeley Independent, 322 S.C. 307,

p. 7


DOE v. BERKELEY PUBLISHERS

471 S.E.2d 731 (Ct. App. 1996). We reverse the decision of the Court of

Appeals.

        Respondent's claim is based on the petitioner's truthful

reporting that respondent was the victim of a sexual assault by an inmate

while both were incarcerated at the Berkeley County jail.1 The issue in an

invasion of privacy claim is whether the occurrence is a matter of

legitimate public or general interest. Meetze v. The Associated Press, 230

S.C. 330, 95 S.E.2d 606 (1956). While ordinarily the issue whether an

occurrence meets this test is a question of fact for the jury, under some

circumstances it may be a question of law for the court. Compare

Hawkins v. Multi-Media, 288 S.C. 569, 344 S.E.2d 145 (1986)(whether

birth of an out-of-wedlock child was a matter of legitimate public or

general interest was a jury question) with Meetze, supra (birth of child to

twelve year old mother one year after her marriage was a matter of public

interest as a matter of law). We hold that the commission of a violent

crime between inmates of a county jail is a matter of public significance as

a matter of law.

        The Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge, holding that

"whether publishing Doe's name as the victim of sexual assault was a

matter of public significance" was an issue for the jury. Doe, 322 S.C. at

314, 471 S.E.2d at 735. We disagree. The Court of Appeals erred in

separating the plaintiff's identity from the event. Under state law, if a

person, whether willingly or not, becomes an actor in an event of public or

general interest, "then the publication of his connection with such an

occurrence is not an invasion of his right to privacy." Meetze, 230 S.C. at

337, 95 S.E.2d at 609. Accordingly, Doe's invasion of privacy claim fails as

a matter of law, and the trial court's directed verdict was proper. The

decision of the Court of Appeals is therefore

REVERSED.

        TOAL, A.J., MOORE, WALLER and BURNETT, JJ., concur.


         1A fuller description of the facts can be found in the Court of

Appeals' opinion.

p. 8