NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Libel · May 10, 2007
Appeals court throws out $3 million libel award
May 10, 2007 · A California appeals court has thrown out a $3 million libel judgment against a newspaper publisher, saying a trial judge abused his discretion.
In 2005, Judge Christopher Warner ordered Raymond Pryke to pay in a lawsuit brought in 2000 by psychotherapist Nancy Bohl, who said she was libeled in stories that appeared in three local newspapers owned by Pryke.
The stories suggested Bohl used her intimate relationship with the San Bernadino County sheriff, whom she married in 2000, to obtain county contracts to counsel local law enforcement personnel in the 1980s and 1990s. The articles also suggested Bohl was overbilling the county and revealing confidential information about employees that she treated.
More than three years into the litigation, Bohl asked the judge to find that Pryke had lost the lawsuit by default, saying he had failed to comply with a 2002 order to provide answers to written questions as part of the pretrial discovery process.
Warner agreed and eventually awarded Bohl and her counseling company $3 million, which included $1 million in punitive damages.
A panel of three judges in Riverside reversed the judgment Friday.
Justice Thomas Hollenhorst, writing for himself and Justice Art McKinster, said Warner had abused his discretion by granting the drastic punishment of a default judgment. To justify such a sanction, the appeals court said the judge must find that a litigant purposely did not comply with a court order and that a less severe punishment would not persuade him to do so.
The appeals court said it did not appear Pryke had willfully violated the order and noted that he initially resisted releasing the material because he claimed the protection of California’s shield law.
“Although [Bohl] would characterize Pryke’s actions as brazen violations of the court’s discovery order, there is a strong argument that they amounted to no more than the use of legitimate means for a reporter to protect his or her sources,” Hollenhorst wrote.
The judges also said a lesser sanction could make Pryke comply with the discovery motions. Indeed, they pointed out that Pryke’s attorney had told the trial judge that the publisher would provide the information and had suggested a lesser punishment.
By rejecting lesser sanctions, Warner’s actions “suggest[ed] an intent to punish Pryke, not accomplish the objects of discovery,” the appeals court said.
The court sent the case back the trial court, directing the judge to consider whether to impose different sanctions against Pryke.
One of the appeals judges, Jeffrey King, agreed that the judgment should be reversed but favored sending the case back to the trial judge so he could restate his reasons for the judgment. That would have left the judge with the option of reinstating the judgment if he believed a lesser punishment would not work.
(Bohl v. Pryke, Media Counsel: Stanley W. Hodge, Victorville, Calif.) — RG