Defamation plaintiff accepts court’s reduced award of $1 million
- A Virginia judge gave a libel plaintiff the choice between a new trial or reduced damages in a case against a local TV station.
Nov. 25, 2003 — The plaintiff in a libel suit against WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va., accepted a reduced jury award of $1 million last week, after a circuit court judge told him to take the money or face a new trial on the issue of damages.
Judge Edward L. Hogshire, of the Circuit Court in Charlottesville, reduced a jury verdict against the station from $10 million to $1 million on Nov. 7, concluding that “the size of the verdict is so disproportionate to the plaintiff’s defamation-related injuries as to ‘shock the conscience of the Court.’ ” Jesse Sheckler accepted the $1 million award Nov. 21.
Hogshire said there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find WVIR liable for defamation, but that the verdict was excessive. In addressing the First Amendment implications of the jury verdict, Hogshire held that it was essentially punitive, in violation of the First Amendment, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Gertz v. Welch.
In Gertz, decided in 1972, the Court ruled that states may not award punitive damages in libel cases unless the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth.
Hogshire found that the evidence presented at trial could sustain a verdict of $1 million to compensate Sheckler for the damages he actually suffered, noting that the reduced sum corresponds with awards in similar cases in Virginia.
Sheckler brought suit against NBC affiliate WVIR-TV, which is owned by Virginia Broadcasting Corporation, after the station reported in April and October 2001 that cocaine was seized from his home and auto-repair shop. The story was incorrect, and the station did not issue a retraction.
WVIR reporter Melinda Semadeni testified at the trial that Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Pagel told her the misinformation about Sheckler.
The jury awarded the $10 million verdict in May 2003, at the height of the scandal involving false reporting by New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. Sheckler’s attorney made numerous references to Blair throughout the trial, according to a June 16 Washington Post article, in an apparent attempt to show the jury that journalists are irresponsible.
The station may appeal the reduced verdict or appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court to order a new trial on both liability and damages.
(Scheckler v. Virginia Broadcasting Corp.; Media Counsel: Thomas E. Albro, Charlottesville) — KM
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press