Alec Baldwin (SNL’s Donald Trump) Sued For Slander by Fan
Greenwich Village, New York City – “The Village.” Excellent! There is a townhouse located at 14 West 10th Street, called the “House of Death.” It is haunted by at least 22 ghosts. Mark Twain resided there from 1900-1901. Over the years, several residents claimed to have seen and heard the ghost of Mark Twain speak. Many celebrities have called the Village home over the years. This week’s case involves one of those celebrities -- Alec Baldwin, star of 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, and Glengarry Glen Ross (“COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS!”). Very true.
The subject of this case is slander – spoken words that are not true that harms someone’s reputation. If the untrue words are written, it is called libel. Libel and slander are part of the same family called defamation. Slander is spoken; libel is written. Both are defamation. (Opinions can never be slander or libel.). Here, Alec was sued for slander.
INTRODUCTION: There is no insurance for a stolen parking spot. The rule of the road is: first in time is first in right. But if each driver believes that they were first, and cooler heads do not prevail, the situation can deteriorate. Rapidly. This is a case about Parking Spot Rage.
ENTER: Alec Baldwin, actor, resident of Greenwich Village; Wojciech Cieszkowski (“Woj”), resident of NYC suburbs, a contractor and fan of Alec Baldwin.
LOCATION: The Village, not far from Baldwin’s home.
In November 2018, Baldwin and Woj got into a widely publicized dispute over a Manhattan parking spot. It started with Woj allegedly stealing the space Baldwin's wife had been saving and ended with Baldwin being arrested after Woj told police the actor punched him in the jaw. (Baldwin denies hitting him and maintains that video of the incident corroborates his version of the story.)
The Manhattan DA's Office charged Baldwin with second-degree harassment — in January 2019, Baldwin pled guilty and agreed to participate in an anger management program. Afterward, he appeared on The Ellen Show and The Howard Stern Show and discussed the incident. Woj then sued for slander — the suit was prompted by Baldwin's talk show comments which included, "I thought he was going to run my wife over with his car when he was stealing my parking spot." Here is the testimony:
TESTIMONY OF ALEC BALDWIN:
Q: Mr. Baldwin, on February 4, 2019, did you appear on "The Ellen Show" as a guest?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: And were you asked by the host, Ellen, whether you were involved in an argument with Woj?
A: Yes Ellen did ask me that.
Q: And how did you respond to that question?
A: I said: "Did I have an argument with the guy? Yeah. I thought he was going to run my wife over with his car when he was stealing my parking spot."
Q: Thank you, Mr. Baldwin. And, on March 27, 2019, did you appear on "The Howard Stern Show" as a guest?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: Was Baba-booey there?
OPPOSING COUNSEL: OBJECTION!
BALDWIN’S COUNSEL: Withdrawn. I will move along, Your Honor.
Q: Did Howard ask you about the parking incident?
A: Yeah, he wanted to talk about that.
Q: And what did you say about the incident on Howard’s show?
A: Right. I said: "When he aggressively takes this parking space, which was not the end of the world, I think he was going to hit my wife and my son .... I thought what he did was impolite, bordering on dangerous. He didn't walk up to me and say, 'Excuse me. I've been waiting here. I'd like to take this space.' He just went zip! -really fast, and really aggressive."
CROSS-EXAMINATION BY WOJ'S LAWYER:
Q: Mr. Baldwin, you did strike Woj at the time of this incident, right?
A: I lightly pushed Woj in the chest with one hand but did not injure him.
Q: And, in fact, you were arrested and pled guilty to harassment.
BALDWIN’S COUNSEL: OBJECTION!
JUDGE: BOTH COUNSEL PLEASE APPROACH THE BENCH. (At sidebar): Counsel, what is the basis of your objection?
BALDWIN’S COUNSEL: Your Honor, counsel is trying to inflame the jury by bringing up the Guilty Plea. Harassment in the Second Degree is a violation and not a crime; therefore, it cannot be used to impeach Mr. Baldwin.
JUDGE: I agree with you. Please return to counsels’ table. OBJECTION IS SUSTAINED.
BALDWIN’S COUNSEL: Your Honor could we please have an instruction for the jury?
JUDGE: Yes, of course. Members of the jury, you are to disregard the last question. It has been stricken from the record. Counsel, you may inquire.
Q: Mr. Baldwin, you just testified that Woj was going to run your wife over with his car when he was stealing your parking spot, right?
A: Yes, I thought he was. When two New Yorkers get into an argument over a parking space, typically what happens is they exchange a few sharp words and then move on with their lives. But Woj is trying to turn a minor altercation over a parking spot into a multi-million dollar lottery ticket.
Q: Ellen didn’t try to get you riled up by having someone jump out of the coffee table on the set, did she?
BALDWIN’S COUNSEL: OBJECTION!
WOJ’S COUNSEL: Nothing further, Your Honor.
ARGUMENT BY BALDWIN’S COUNSEL:
Your Honor, this case should be dismissed. Here, Woj argues that the two statements on the "Ellen" and "Howard Stern" shows are slanderous. Specifically, Alec said that "I thought he was going to run my wife over with his car when he was stealing my parking spot" and "I think he was going to hit my wife and my son ... He just went zip! - really fast, and really aggressive" somehow imputed to Woj a serious crime. The crime, I suppose, being reckless endangerment. That is under the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Can a defendant receive jail time for that? Yes, but for purposes of defamation, that is not what the law means by a serious crime, like murder, burglary, larceny, arson, rape, kidnapping.
ARGUMENT BY WOJ’s COUNSEL:
Your Honor, this case should not be dismissed. Alec Baldwin is an entitled celebrity with a long history of verbally and physically mistreating others he sees as beneath him. Mr. Baldwin has a history of losing his temper, often paying a price for it.
In 2011, he was thrown off an American Airlines flight after refusing to stop playing a game on his phone before takeoff. He was suspended in 2013 as host of an MSNBC talk show after he used a gay slur toward a photographer trying to take pictures of Mr. Baldwin and his wife and baby outside their building. A year later, he was arrested and given a summons for disorderly conduct after an argument with police officers who had stopped him bicycling the wrong way on a one-way street in Manhattan…
Counsel, those prior bad acts are not part of this record and they cannot be used to prove that Mr. Baldwin had a proclivity to say anything slanderous about Woj. So, I am not getting your point. Mr Baldwin's use of the words "really fast," "aggressive," "zip" and "almost hit/run over my wife and child" are hyperbole. As there is no precise meaning to these statements, they were rhetorical illustrations. Further, although Woj is correct that simply putting the words "I thought" before a statement does not convert a statement from fact to opinion, a review of the videos and the transcripts of the two shows demonstrates that Mr. Baldwin was indeed describing his impressions, his state of mind, and his thought process during the occurrence. In conclusion, because Mr. Baldwin was describing his own opinion of what he saw, no action for defamation under a slander per se theory lies. THE CASE FOR SLANDER IS DISMISSED!
In November 2019, Alec Baldwin filed his own defamation lawsuit against Woj. Baldwin’s complaint states that Woj’s claim that he was violently assaulted by Baldwin is “objectively false,” and was made up in an effort to extort money from Baldwin. The complaint states, “Hospital records and video surveillance footage prove that it was a lie…But Woj told it to the police and medical professionals anyway.”
How will the court rule on the new lawsuit? We will save the answer to that for a future installment of CUP OF JOE.
Happy New Year!
Here is the case: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/pdfs/2019/2019_33756.pdf