The inspiration for today’s post comes from Greg, who asks:
During the Civil War storyline, for a brief time Peter Parker “outed” himself as Spider-Man. … J. Jonah Jameson wanted to sue Peter for fraud because he sold pictures of Spider-Man to the Daily Bugle under what [Jameson] claimed were false pretenses. My question is, would that hold any water?
The facts for this question come from Amazing Spider-Man #533 (which you can buy reprinted in The Amazing Spider-Man: Civil War). Specifically, a lawyer for the Bugle tells Parker that the Bugle is suing him for “misrepresentation, fraud, breach of contract and several other related charges” and they are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages of at least five million dollars. So, how worried should Parker be about this? Pretty worried, in our estimation. Let’s take a look at each charge in turn.
(Before we get started, we’ll mention that there would have to have been a contract between Parker and the Bugle for the photographs because, as an independent contractor, Parker owned the copyright in his photos and would need to license or sell the copyright to the Bugle via a contract before they could be printed. See this post for more on that.)
Because both breach of contract and fraud are also listed, we think that misrepresentation is being used in the contract law sense rather than the tort law sense. In the contract law sense, misrepresentation is also known as fraud in the inducement (i.e. a misrepresentation made in order to induce the other party to enter into a contract). This should not be confused with the tort of fraud, which we’ll get to shortly.
In New York, “To recover under a theory of fraudulent inducement, the plaintiff must prove: (1) misrepresentation of a material fact; (2) falsity of the representation; (3) scienter; (4) reasonable reliance; and (5) damages.” Creative Waste Mgmt., Inc. v. Capitol Env. Servs., Inc., 429 F.Supp.2d 582, 607 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). “Scienter” is a fancy legal word for “knowledge,” and in this case means the defendant has to make the misrepresentation knowingly.
So, has the Bugle likely got a case for fraud in the inducement here? Let’s go through the elements.
(1) Misrepresentation of a material fact.
Right off the bat we run into a small snag: did Parker ever explicitly claim that the photos were unstaged photos of a different person? Maybe, maybe not. But even if he didn’t, his silence may be enough.
“[W]hen dealing with a claim of fraud based on material omissions, it is settled that a duty to disclose arises only when one party has information that the other party is entitled to know because of a fiduciary or other similar relation of trust and confidence between them.” Creative, 429 F.Supp.2d at 607. Such a relation can be imputed by the “special facts doctrine,” under which “the courts impose a duty on a party with superior knowledge of essential facts to disclose those facts where nondisclosure would make the transaction inherently unfair. For this doctrine to be applicable, the plaintiff must prove that (1) one party has superior knowledge of certain information; (2) that information is not readily available to the other party; and (3) the first party knows that the second party is acting on the basis of mistaken knowledge.” Id.
Clearly, Parker had superior knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity. Jameson had no clue who Spider-Man was and certainly didn’t suspect Parker. The information was not readily available, as demonstrated by the fact that quite a few people, Jameson included, had tried and failed to determine Spider-Man’s identity. And it can reasonably be assumed that Parker knew that Jameson wouldn’t have bought the photos if he knew they were staged and being sold to him by Spider-Man.
So Parker’s misrepresentation by omission will suffice. It’s also definitely a material misrepresentation (i.e. it would have made a difference in whether a contract was agreed to) because Jameson would not have bought the photos if he knew the truth.
(2) falsity of the representation
This one is pretty easy. At the very least the photos were falsely presented as genuine news photographs and not a semi-staged photo-op for Spider-Man.
No question here; Parker definitely knew he wasn’t being honest about the photographs.
(4) reasonable reliance
Another easy one. It was entirely reasonable for Jameson to believe that Parker was not Spider-Man and that the photos were genuine. Unlike some superheroes (*cough* Superman *cough*), Spider-Man does a believable job of keeping his identity secret, and there was nothing incredible about the photos.
This one is also straightforward. The Bugle paid Parker money for the photos, per the contract, and so there are damages.
So that’s misrepresentation established. What does it get the Bugle? The likely result is rescission of the contract and restitution of any money paid to Parker for the photographs. So the Bugle gets its money back and no longer owes Parker anything under the contract.
II. Breach of Contract
This one is a little harder to write about, since we don’t know what the terms of the contract were. It’s extremely likely, however, that the contract included a representations and warranties section in which Parker affirmatively represented that the photos were genuine, unmodified, unstaged, etc. By trying to pass off the (effectively) staged photos, Parker would have breached the contract.
The practical upshot of the breach of contract claim is the remedy. Breach of contract remedies are a little complicated, but the main damages here will be the loss of value due to lost reputation. What it definitely doesn’t get the Bugle is punitive damages, as damages in contract cases are almost always compensatory. Even in cases of a fraudulent breach of contract, punitive damages are not available unless the fraud was “malicious, vindictive or morally reprehensible [demonstrating the] intent of wanton and reckless behavior.” Reinah Development Corp. v. Kaaterskill Hotel Corp., 59 N.Y.2d 482, 487 (1983). Parker was not trying to scam the Bugle, so we don’t think his conduct rises to that level.
Because the damage due to lost reputation is so hard to measure, it’s possible that Parker’s contract with the Bugle included a liquidated damages clause. A liquidated damages clause lets the parties agree to a particular amount of damages in advance. Parker could thus be on the hook for whatever that amount is times the number of photos the Bugle printed (or, less likely, the number it purchased).
“Generally, in a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must allege a misrepresentation or a material omission of fact which was false and known to be false by defendant, made for the purpose of inducing the other party to rely upon it, justifiable reliance of the other party on the misrepresentation or material omission, and injury.” Mandarin Trading Ltd. v. Wildenstein, 16 N.Y.3d 173, 178 (2011). As you can see, that’s remarkably similar to the elements of fraud in the inducement. The difference in this case is in the remedy. Whereas the remedy for fraud in the inducement is to undo the contract, the remedy for tortious fraud covers all of the damages stemming from the Bugle‘s reliance on Parker’s misrepresentations and omissions.
But wait a minute, that sounds a lot like the breach of contract damages. And that’s right: the damages for fraud would be essentially identical to the damages for breaching the representations clause of the contract. But you don’t get to recover twice for the same injury, so even if the Bugle proved both claims it wouldn’t get twice as much money. So why bother suing for both? First, because it might not be able to prove both claims and second, because the contract might not include a representations section (though this is unlikely)
All told, Parker is looking at a pretty serious lawsuit. As well he should, since passing off staged or manipulated photographs is a serious journalistic no-no, even if it’s done for the best of reasons.