by Gaia Gusmini and Luigi Manna

The Italian Court of Cassation recently overturned a Court of Rome’s decision issued in a libel lawsuit between Ente Autonomo per le Fiere di Verona (“Ente”) and Gruppo Editoriale l’Espresso S.p.A. (“l’Espresso”), a publishing company owning, among else, the weekly magazine “L’Espresso”.

The plaintiff, organiser of the well-known “Vinitaly” tradeshow and owner of the trademark of the same name, had sued l’Espresso along with some journalists seeking compensation for damages allegedly caused by the publishing of two press articles, respectively titled “Welcome to Velenitaly” (a made-up contraction of “veleno”, the Italian word for “poison”, and Vinitaly) and “in Brunello wine there is a trick”, both regarding criminal investigations into food adulterations of wine products. Ente, completely unrelated to the investigations, claimed that the use of the made-up word “Velenitaly” in the title of one of the articles and the content of the articles themselves – including pictures of a bottle and a glass of wine – published in 2008 at the same time of the opening of that year’s edition of the tradeshow, had brought harm to the trademark reputation.

The Court of Rome had rejected the lawsuit, pointing out that the articles at issue didn’t refer to the tradeshow, that Ente had no title to claim exclusive ownership on the suffix “-italy” and that, therefore, the combination of this suffix with the prefix “velen-” could not be libelous. It stated also that, in any case, the plaintiff had not provided evidence of any loss of profits and did not have standing to represent the entire category of Italian wine-makers.

The decision was appealed by Ente before the Court of Appeal of Rome, which ruled an early dismissal of the appeal on the grounds that it was unlikely to be upheld. Ente brought therefore the matter up to the Court of Cassation[1].

The Court of Cassation dwelt on the libelous potential of the title “Velenitaly”. In this regard, the Court recalled that, in the assessment of the libelous character of a press article, reference should be made to all the elements that make the meaning of its contents clear, and not just to single expressions. The libelous character, furthermore, should not be assessed having regard solely to the perception of careful readers, who read the entire article, but also to that of superficial ones, who read it in a hurry and who can be misled just by the title or by the photos. Thus, the Court continued, “the title must be taken into account, because it is capable of impressing upon and misleading the reader, causing harmful judgements on others’ reputations”.

In the case at issue, the Court concluded that “the association of the neologism “Velenitaly” used in the title with the “Vinitaly” event is obvious”. In the Court of Cassation’s opinion, the first instance Court had erred in failing to consider whether the neologism in the title was libelous itself, regardless of whether the careful reader could have noted that Ente was cleared of any involvement.

Based on the above, the Court of Cassation annulled the first instance ruling and referred the case back to the Rome Court, ordering it to assess whether the title and the layout of the press articles in suit were libelous.

[1] According to the Italian Code of Civil Procedure, following an early dismissal of an appeal by a second instance court, the first instance ruling can be appealed before the Court of Cassation.