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Court orders new trial over confusing state of libel law

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Court orders new trial over confusing state of libel law 10/19/98 SOUTH CAROLINA--In reaction to what one justice called the…

Court orders new trial over confusing state of libel law

10/19/98

SOUTH CAROLINA–In reaction to what one justice called the “mind- numbingly incoherent” condition of state libel laws, the state Supreme Court in Columbia reversed a punitive damages award in late September and ordered a third trial to assess actual damages in a suit filed against The Florence Morning News by a mother whose daughter’s murder was covered by the newspaper.

A jury originally awarded the mother $1.5 million in punitive damages, which the trial judge reduced to $500,000, along with actual damages of $500,000. The state Supreme Court held that the trial judge should have directed a verdict for the newspaper on the issue of punitive damages, while also holding that the newspaper should be granted a new trial on actual damages.

The court unanimously concluded that the punitive damages issue never should have been submitted to the jury because there was no evidence that the newspaper had acted with “constitutional actual malice” — knowledge that the statement was false or reckless disregard for its truthfulness — when the article was prepared and published.

The majority of the court, in a part of the decision on which the justices were split 3-2, also determined that confusion created by prior South Carolina case law necessitated a new trial on the issue of actual damages, as the confusion had denied the parties a fair trial.

The mother of a seventeen-year-old girl who was murdered brought the defamation suit against The Florence Morning News after it ran a story quoting the girl’s doctor as saying that there was “no family support” for her education. The doctor later testified that she actually had said there was “no financial support” for the murdered girl’s education.

In ordering a third trial on the issue of actual damages, the court granted the newspaper’s request to argue against precedent set earlier in this case and against precedent set in six other defamation cases. The court acknowledged that South Carolina precedent had generated confusion in the area and saw a “need to reconsider many of our defamation cases in light of changing constitutional principles.”

Specifically, the court clarified that the mother would have to introduce extrinsic evidence to prove the published statement had a defamatory meaning, but that she would not have to plead or prove special damages because general damages would be presumed if she could establish that the statement was defamatory.

The court stopped short of overruling prior defamation case law regarding when statements are actionable, but Justice Jean Toal stated in a concurring opinion that the majority opinion did not go far enough in its attempt to clarify the actionability of statements and to take into account the constitutional issues implicated in defamation claims.

Toal criticized the state Supreme Court’s failure to consider fully the impact of U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding defamation since the 1960s. Justice Toal described South Carolina defamation law as “mind-numbingly incoherent.”

“Case law in this state presents no clear analytical system for resolving defamation questions,” Toal wrote. “Because a clear framework is lacking, the resolution of disputes often turns on chance. . . . As a result, the law lacks consistency and predictability, and confounds the bench, the bar, members of the general public, and media personnel who have to make important decisions based on court precedent.” (Holtzscheiter v. Thomson Newspapers, Inc.; Media Counsel: E.N. Zeigler, Florence)