A New Jersey appellate court ruled Monday that a man involved in a defamation suit regarding online child sexual abuse accusations will be allowed to proceed without proving damages, an unusual move departing from the standard of requiring proof of damages in defamation suits.
The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie’s grant of summary judgment, ruling that dismissing the case because the plaintiff could not prove damages “provides defendant with a license to defame,” the court opinion said. Thus, the appeals court remanded the case, allowing it to go to a jury.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a similar case in 2000 that plaintiffs in cases subject to the actual malice standard — that is, in cases involving public officials and figures, as well as matters of public concern — must prove damages in defamation cases, but left open the question of whether presumed damages are available in cases brought by private individuals where no public interest in implicated, the scenario in the case on which the appellate court ruled Monday.
In 1998, W.J.A. filed a complaint against his uncle, D.A., seeking damages for allegations of child sexual abuse. That case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. However, the uncle countersued based on alleged defamatory statements W.J.A made to the Ventnor City Police, according to court documents.
The uncle was awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $41,323 for frivolous litigation.
In 2007, the plaintiff discovered the defendant had created a website, on which he posted that he had been molested by the uncle “many, many times,” along with another child, the opinion said.
The plaintiff filed a defamation suit in March 2007, seeking $500,000 from the defendant. Five months later, Perskie granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment.
Perskie ruled that although the statements were defamatory per se, the plaintiff was unable to prove damages beyond his “individual subjective moral reactions which are absolutely understandable and rational and realistic and by themselves insufficient as a matter of law,” the trial court's ruling said.
The appeals court took the case, agreeing with the trial court that the statements were defamatory, but ruling that the private-figure plaintiff could presume damages and proceed. Absent a definitive statement from the New Jersey Supreme Court on the damages standard in a claim by a private figure where no public interest is implicated, "the right to recover damages in an action premised upon libel without proof of actual harm remains the law in this jurisdiction," the court wrote.
Bruce Rosen, a lawyer who represented various press organizations as friends of the court in Too Much Media, LLC v. Hale, an unrelated, but similar, case involving damages that is currently pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court, said the Appellate Division's ruling can affect the media in rare cases where a private individual sued the media and the court decided the issue was a private matter.
"Just because something appears in the paper doesn’t make it a matter of public concern," Rosen said.
Rosen also said the ruling disembarks from the general trend and invites the New Jersey Supreme Court to weigh in.
"It seems like [the Appellate Division] seized upon a loophole to help a plaintiff and it's disconcerting that they would do that in light of the trend," Rosen said. "I hope [the New Jersey Supreme Court] make[s] that further statement because it’s time to end this discussion about presumed damages."