Court reduces damages; Inquirer still must pay millions
PENNSYLVANIA — In late November, a Pennsylvania appellate court upheld a May 1990 libel verdict against the Philadelphia Inquirer but reduced the damage award by $10 million.
The Superior Court in Philadelphia reduced a $31.5 million punitive damage award to $21.5 million, but did not alter the $2.5 million in compensatory damages awarded to Richard Sprague, a former Philadelphia prosecutor. The three judge panel ruled that Sprague could either accept the reduced award or go back to trial on the issue of punitive damages.
Sprague sued the newspaper in April 1973 over a story that implied he blocked a homicide investigation focusing on the son of a police captain and that he had participated in an illegal wiretapping scheme.
The newspaper has filed a petition with the Superior Court requesting reargument before the entire court.
In May 1988 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a $4.5 million judgment for Sprague against the Inquirer and ordered a new trial.
At the time of the May 1990 verdict, the $34 million award was the largest libel judgment against the news media on record, according to the Washington Post. The largest libel award currently on record is a 1991 verdict of $58 million against WFAA-TV in Dallas. In that case, a former district attorney sued the television station over a report that alleged he accepted payments to quash drunk driving cases.
(Sprague v. Walter; Media Counsel: Robert Heim, Philadelphia)