A New Jersey appeals panel has upheld a 2011 court ruling that said a developer filed a frivolous lawsuit against four homeowners and their lawyer.
Joseph Samost, a prominent South Jersey builder, had claimed four owners and their attorney, Gregory Voorhees, defamed him after he lost a court battle over who should pay to repair the storm-damaged Kenilworth Dam in Evesham.
Samost had argued that he didn't have the $250,000 needed to fix the dam, but the now-retired Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan said he didn't believe him and ordered him to deposit the money with the court. Hogan found Samost "had been manipulating his assets through interlocking entities of which he was 'true' owner to avoid" paying for the repairs, according to an 18-page decision filed by the appeals panel.
After Hogan's ruling, Voorhees told a Courier-Post reporter: "We believe the court has seen through the actions of Joseph Samost... and chased down assets of a man who tried to hide them from the court and the homeowners."
The appeals panel said that the lawyer's statement was not defamatory because it was Voorhees' opinion of Judge Hogan's ruling. And it accurately reflected the judge's opinion, the appeals panel said.
Superior Court Judge Karen Suter, Hogan's replacement, said that Samost's defamation lawsuit was filed in "bad faith." She noted he had left out the "we believe" part of the quote when he filed his suit. "It was misleading not to include the full quote," Suter said in a 2011 decision.
Suter also found Samost had sued the homeowners simply because they were standing behind Voorhees when he made the comment to the reporter. She ordered Samost to pay their $14,205 legal bill.
The appeals panel upheld her rulings. In one of its more interesting reasons, the panel said that when a statement "contains "loose, figurative or hyperbolic language," it is less likely to be defamatory because it is obviously opinion, rather than fact.
"Voorhees may have embellished those findings (of Judge Hogan) or used hyperbole by saying the court had to 'chase down' Samost's assets does not mean that the statement was defamatory," the panel wrote.
So, in cases like these, exaggerations may actually help protect the person who is dishing out his point of view.