ELEVENTH CIRCUIT–In early June a federal appeals court in Atlanta (11th Cir.) granted a new trial to a man who lost a libel suit against Time magazine.
The court held that instructions given by the judge to the jury at the end of the trial in a federal district court in Atlanta could have created confusion about what plaintiff Michael Schafer had to prove in order to win his suit against the magazine. The confusion arose between the state law’s definition of libel as “a false and malicious defamation” and the law’s requirement that a plaintiff who wishes to avoid proving that his reputation was actually damaged must prove that the libelous statement was published with “actual malice” – – knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.
Schafer sued Time for printing his picture with a caption indicating that the photo was of David Lovejoy, an alleged double- agent accused of participating in the bombing of a Pan Am airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. When the jury asked the court to explain the difference between “malice” and “actual malice,” the judge instructed jurors that, for purposes of determining whether the photo caption was libelous, the statement was malicious if it was “deliberately calculated to injure.”
Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Stanley Birch observed that the Georgia Supreme Court interpreted the state’s libel law as requiring non-public persons like Schafer to prove only negligence rather than actual malice. Because the jury obviously relied on the trial judge’s inaccurate definition when it found in favor of Time, the appellate court held, Schafer was entitled to a new trial. (Schafer v. Time, Inc.; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta)