TORTS

Intentional Torts • Defamation • Damages • Special Harm

Joseph v. Scranton Times, PICS Case No. 14-0371 (Pa. Super. March 11, 2014) Strassburger, J. (46 pages).

Trial court erred in failing to consider evidence of general damages and actual malice in a defamation action and in holding that plaintiff was required to prove that defamatory statements were sole cause of damage to his reputation. Vacated and remanded.

Police executed search warrants at plaintiff’s home and business after an investigation linked plaintiff to a notorious mobster. The following day, various newspapers printed articles about the incident, implicating plaintiff in a ring of illegal activity. Plaintiff sued for defamation.

The trial court found that plaintiff failed to establish the damages portion of a defamation action and entered a verdict in favor of newspapers. It denied plaintiff’s post-trial motions seeking judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or a new trial as to damages.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in holding that it had not proved actual harm. He also argued that he was entitled to presumed and punitive damages because he in fact proved actual malice. Plaintiff therefore requested that the case be remanded for a new trial on the issue of damages alone. Newspapers argued that the trial court made no findings of fact and that, if remanded, the trial should determine liability as well as damages. The superior court vacated and remanded.

In a defamation case, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the defamatory character of the communication; (2) its publication by the defendant; (3) its application to the plaintiff; (4) the understanding by the recipient of its defamatory meaning; (5) the understanding by the recipient of it as intended to be applied to the plaintiff; (6) special harm resulting to the plaintiff from its publication; and (7) abuse of a conditionally privileged occasion. Because defendants were members of the media, plaintiff also had to prove that the alleged defamatory statement was in fact false.

The trial court found that plaintiff established newspapers’ liability for defamation. A communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him. Here, newspapers reported, inter alia, that plaintiff had received a target letter from the Department of Justice and was the subject to video surveillance; that plaintiff used his businesses to launder money and to transport money, drugs, prostitutes, and guns; and that plaintiff was connected to drug trafficking at a local pub and was involved in political corruption. Attributing such criminal activity to a plaintiff constitutes defamation. Each of the offending articles was defamatory on its face and required no extrinsic evidence of defamatory meaning.

The trial court held that plaintiff failed to meet his burden as to damages because it found reputation evidence offered on behalf of plaintiff incredible. However, in addition to evidence of reputational harm, “personal humiliation and mental anguish” are types of actual harm compensable for defamation. Here, daughter testified that the articles caused her to refuse to recognize her father in public, which “killed him.” She further testified that plaintiff was “distressed” by the defamatory statements; that since their publication he had been “the lowest I’ve ever seen him,” and that “it’s hard for him to keep going.” Plaintiff testified that it pained him emotionally that daughter was ashamed of him. Plaintiff’s son testified similarly on behalf of plaintiff. The trial court ignored completely this evidence of general damages and a new trial as to damages is warranted.

Additionally, the trial court erred in that holding plaintiff was required to prove that the defamatory statements were the sole cause of damage to reputation. Other causes for damage may impact the amount of damages but do not negate liability so long as the defamation was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm.

Moreover, even though plaintiff was not a public figure, the trial court should have made a factual finding as to whether newspapers published the articles with actual malice. Actual malice entitles a plaintiff to punitive or presumed damages. Plaintiff alleged that he did in fact prove actual malice and therefore he was entitled to both. The question of actual malice, as it related to plaintiff’s claims for punitive and presumed damages, had to be determined by the fact finder upon retrial.