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staff reporter In a bittersweet victory, a husband-and-wife lawyer team have won a $9 million libel award against a former South Carolina television news director. That was the sweet part. The bitter end for the plaintiffs came when the defense prevailed with a directed verdict acquitting the station that employed the news director, all but eliminating the couple’s chances of collecting any of the money from the imprisoned defendant. Both sides and the judge seem to agree that the facts of the case are bizarre. Elizabeth and Christopher Murphy, partners at the Stuckey Law Offices of Charleston, S.C., sued WCSC-TV for libel in March 2001 alleging that news director Don Feldman had concocted a false story in a private conversation that tarnished Elizabeth Murphy’s reputation. Feldman was allegedly infatuated with Sally Senn, a former law partner of Elizabeth Murphy’s father, who regularly appeared as a guest on a WCSC program. Senn had a rift with Murphy when she left the Stuckey law firm. To ingratiate himself with Senn, the newsman told her that he had witnessed Murphy slandering her while intoxicated on an airplane with a man who was not her husband. He showed Senn a letter he had written on company stationery condemning Murphy’s behavior. When Senn threatened to sue Murphy, Feldman presented a phony civil agreement in which Murphy had ostensibly apologized for her actions. Murphy had proof that she was never even on the plane. She claimed that the ordeal tainted her reputation and triggered a nervous breakdown. In addition to Feldman, she sued the station’s owner, Jefferson-Pilot Communications, arguing that it had in effect given Feldman the authority to defame her. His position at work made him credible, she argued. After a 1 1/2-week jury trial, Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston granted the defense’s motion for a directed verdict, saying that WCSC should not be responsible for the harm done by Feldman. “To extend vicarious liability to the facts of this case would be unreasonable,” the judge wrote. “I have agonized over this case for 7 days of trial . . . .We have had a parade of the victims of Don Feldman.” The Charleston jury awarded $6 million to Elizabeth Murphy, $3 million of it in punitive damages, and another $3 million to her husband. Feldman is in prison for stealing $2.5 million from the station. According to his lawyer, Coming B. Gibbs Jr. of Gibbs & Holmes in Charleston, he has no assets. The Murphys’ lawyer, John E. Parker of Hampton, S.C.’s Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, said he was shocked by the decision and will appeal. “If you put a person in the position of assistant vice president of a corporation, then you vouch for that person’s integrity while expressing the powers of that position,” said Parker. It doesn’t matter that Feldman’s actions were bogus, he said. “The issue is whether Feldman’s actions were within the scope of his authority and whether Senn reasonably believed he had that authority.” “Agency is not strict liability,” countered defense attorney John J. Kerr of Charleston’s Buist, Moore, Smythe & McGee. “You don’t have the right to use authority for something totally outside the realm of what your employer thinks you’re using it for.” Kerr said the judge’s decision took “moral courage.” Professor John P. Freeman of the University of South Carolina Law School, noted that the law of agency was initially created to protect unsuspecting investors from stockbrokers who lured them into fraudulent deals. Freeman said the fact that Feldman had embezzled from the station for 12 years would make him question where the internal controls were. Elizabeth Murphy v. Jefferson-Pilot Communications, No. CV 01-CP-10-1115; Chris Murphy v. Jefferson-Pilot Communications, No. CV 01-CP-10-2161 (Charleston Co., S.C., Ct. C.P.). McAree’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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