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Jay Leno Sued Over Alleged 'Bestiality' Jokes

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By Betty Wang, JD on November 20, 2013 2:33 PM

Late-night comedian Jay Leno is being sued over bestiality jokes by the target of those jokes, a former flight attendant.

Louann Giambattista, 55, of Nassau County, New York, claims that she was falsely accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with a rat, the ABA Journal reports.

Leno's jokes referenced a lawsuit Giambattista filed against her ex-employer, American Airlines. The suit involved a co-worker's alleged comments about Giambattista carrying rats in her undergarments.

Were Leno's Jokes Defamatory?

Giambattista is alleging that Leno defamed her on "The Tonight Show" in June, when he and a few other guest comedians poked fun at her claims. Among the comments: that Giambattista "coulda used what the rest of us ladies use -- a Rabbit." Rabbit, for those who don't know, refers to the name of a vibrator brand.

Giambattista didn't find the jokes funny. But will she have the last laugh in court?

Generally speaking, defamation covers any statements that hurt one's reputation. The specific elements of a defamation lawsuit require:

  • A statement, which can be either spoken or written;
  • Publication to a third party, which can include television broadcasts;
  • Injury, which can include harm to a person's reputation (Giambattista claims that the jokes affected her marriage with her husband);
  • Falsity, meaning the statements must actually be false; and
  • No privileged communications. Certain statements, even if defamatory, can be considered privileged and therefore allowed. For example, to preserve the sanctity of a trial, witnesses who testify are generally free to make defamatory statements without suffering any legal consequences. In this case, Giambattista's allegations are likely unprivileged.

Leno's Potential Defenses

With comedians making fun of people all the time, it may be surprising that they aren't sued for defamation more often.

One potential reason they're not: they're making jokes. Courts have ruled that parodies and spoofs can't be actionable as defamation when no reasonable person would interpret the statements as fact, the Student Press Law Center explains. Therefore, if Leno's audience knew he and the other comics were merely cracking jokes and not stating any facts, this will likely put them in the clear.

Some other defenses could also potentially apply. For example, Leno could try to argue that Giambattista is a public figure.

While public figures typically include celebrities and politicians, in this case, Leno could assert that Giambattista had made the news with her American Airlines lawsuit, which made her a public figure.

Public figures have to prove that the alleged defamer made the statements with actual malice -- a level of fault that indicates the defendant knew the statement was false and said it anyway.

Giambattista's Jay Leno lawsuit isn't the first to allege defamation by the comedian. A prior lawsuit over a joke about a Sikh temple in 2012 was rather quickly dismissed by the man who filed it, RumorFix reports.

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