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Court throws out punitive damages award in "prison" photo case

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW YORK         Libel    

Court throws out punitive damages award in “prison” photo case

  • An appellate court ruled last week that the Nation of Islam’s newspaper did not act deliberately when it carelessly published a picture of a woman as a convict.

Oct. 1, 2003 — A New York appeals court on Sept. 25 ruled that The Final Call, a newspaper published by the Nation of Islam, did not intend to deliberately harm a woman falsely pictured in the paper as a prison inmate and therefore could not be forced to pay punitive damages under state law.

The majority of the Appellate Division court reduced by more than half the $1.3 million libel award obtained at trial by Tatia Morsette, whose stock photograph was used twice by the newspaper. The appeals court said that because the Nation of Islam’s newspaper acted carelessly, rather than intentionally, the $700,000 punitive damage award would not stand.

“Indeed, it is precisely the randomness of defendant’s conduct and the fact that such conduct was not directed specifically at this plaintiff that requires us to vacate the punitive damages award,” according to published reports of Justice Eugene Nardelli’s opinion.

The case began in 1997, when the weekly newspaper found a picture of Morsette, a successful entertainment promoter, in its archives and used it to illustrate an unrelated story without her consent. The paper featured Morsette holding her son in the front cover and then again in another page in “Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis,” a story about women in prison.

Although Morsette had never been to prison, the picture featured inside had been altered to depict her in prison attire.

Morsette sued the paper for libel and a state trial court in New York City awarded her $640,000 in compensatory damages and $700,000 in punitive damages.

But the appeals court reduced her compensatory damages award to $400,000 in addition to completely striking the punitive damages award.

“Notwithstanding defendant’s reprehensible, irresponsible conduct,” Nardelli wrote, “there is no evidence . . . that the malice or ill was directed specifically at plaintiff to support an award of punitive damages.”

(Morsette v. The Final Call) VR

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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