By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK, Dec 12 (Reuters) - A unanimous New York appeals
court on Wednesday reinstated a defamation claim brought by a
man who said he was accused in an online post of throwing a
severed horse head in a local politician's pool.
The Appellate Division, Second Department, found that a
comment on a newspaper website accusing David LeBlanc of dumping
a severed horse head in a local politician's swimming pool
constituted defamation per se, and it said LeBlanc didn't need
to show he had suffered monetary losses as a result of the
The ruling partially reversed a 2011 decision and clears the
way for LeBlanc to litigate the revived claim.
The case dates back to 2006, when Gail Soro, a member of the
town board of Wawayanda, New York, discovered a severed horse
head in her swimming pool, the ruling said.
The culprit was never found, but speculation ensued, given
the "cinematic bravado" of the gesture, Justice Jeffrey Cohen of
the Second Department wrote.
"While the discovery of any deliberately placed mutilated
animal carcass in a family swimming pool would be shocking and
noteworthy, the choice of a severed horse head immediately
evokes to many the infamous scene from Mario Puzo's novel, 'The
Godfather,' as immortalized in the film directed by Francis Ford
Coppola," Cohen explained in a footnote.
In the film, Italian mafia try to intimidate a Hollywood
producer by cutting off the head of a prized race horse and
putting it in the producer's bed while he's asleep.
A year after the head was discovered, a comment was posted
in a forum on the website of a local newspaper, the Times
Herald-Record, accusing LeBlanc, a businessman who was active in
local policy debates, of being behind the incident.
It was never determined who was responsible for the horse
head, the ruling stated. The Orange County district attorney's
office could not be reached Wednesday evening to confirm.
'DEFAMATION PER SE'
"We all know who was behind the Horse Head ... there is only
one man around town dumb enough, violent enough and with a
vendetta to do that ... Dave LeBlanc ... I hope all this
negative publicity on him destroys his business," the comment on
the website said, according to the ruling.
In 2008, LeBlanc sued former Wawayanda town supervisor Wayne
Skinner and his wife, Karen Skinner, along with their nephew,
Michael Hawkins, for defamation. The complaint alleged that they
were responsible for the horse head comment, along with several
other allegedly defamatory statements posted on local blogs and
The Skinners moved for summary judgment, saying that LeBlanc
had to prove that he suffered "special damages" -- economic or
monetary losses -- to sustain two defamation claims related to
the horse head comments.
Orange County Supreme Court Justice Elaine Slobod agreed
and, in a 2011 ruling, granted the Skinners' motion and
dismissed those two claims.
On appeal, LeBlanc cited New York state case law, which
recognizes four kinds of statements that can qualify as
defamation per se, without need to prove special damages. One of
those, he said, is a statement that charges the plaintiff with a
In its ruling, the Second Department agreed that the forum
post about the horse head incident constituted defamation per
"The published allegation that the plaintiff put a severed
horse head in a Town Board member's swimming pool constituted
defamation per se under this standard and, therefore, did not
require the plaintiff to plead special damages," Cohen wrote for
However, the court denied LeBlanc's motion to reinstate a
second claim related to two additional comments on the newspaper
site -- one that called LeBlanc a "terrorist" and another that
asked, "Who was the one who threw the horse head in Gail's
pool..." and directed the reader to a different blog post. Cohen
wrote that the first comment was a statement of opinion, not
fact, and LeBlanc was not clearly implicated in the second
Cohen was joined by Justices Mark Dillon, Daniel Angiolillo
and Anita Florio in the opinion.
A lawyer for LeBlanc could not be immediately reached for
comment, and an attorney for the Skinners declined to comment
Wednesday on the ruling.
The case is LeBlanc v. Skinner, New York State Supreme
Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, No. 2011-3120.
For LeBlanc: Moacyr Calhelha of Calhelha & Doyle.
For the Skinner defendants: Christopher Watkins of Sussman &
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