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High court reinstates libel verdict against newspaper

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Libel   ·   April 13, 2006

High court reinstates libel verdict against newspaper

  • A jury verdict finding a newspaper guilty of defamation will stand, the state Supreme Court ruled, despite the fact that the newspaper’s defense was never presented to the jury during the liability stage of the trial.

April 13, 2006  ·   A jury verdict holding a newspaper liable for defaming a children’s advocate was reinstated on Monday by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled 4-1 to overturn a trial court’s decision to dismiss the finding by the jury, which never heard the newspaper’s defense during the trial’s liability phase.

Judge E.C. Burnett III wrote for the majority that evidence in the case shows the Charleston City Paper knew its reporting was probably false in Bill Davis’ Jan, 19, 2000, story “In a Child’s Best Interest: Is the guardian ad litem program giving children a voice?” The evidence, Burnett wrote, “is sufficient to support the jury’s finding of actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

A South Carolina jury found that Linda Erickson, a guardian ad litem who advocates for children in judicial matters, was defamed when a child’s grandmother, Pat Beal, said in the story that the unnamed guardian had done a very poor job caring for her granddaughter. The guardian “failed to properly investigate the case or speak with the child she represented,” “improperly blocked and tried to prevent the mother from getting full custody of the children,” manipulated a court judge, and had a sexual relationship with the father of a child she represented, according to court documents.

Although Erickson was not named in the story, she claimed she was sufficiently identified in the article. With consent from both parties, the judge divided the trial into two parts, a liability phase and damages phase.

After the liability phase, the jury agreed with Erickson, but it had not heard the newspaper’s defense because John Kerr, the newspaper’s lawyer, strongly felt the trial judge would dismiss the case even if the jury came back with a guilty verdict, according to the court record.

During the damages phase both sides presented evidence and the trial court found that Erickson “was a limited public figure who had not presented clear and convincing evidence to prove Newspaper acted with actual malice.” As a public figure, Erickson would have to show that the newspaper acted with a reckless disregard for the truth of the story to prove the newspaper was guilty of libel. The court dismissed the case and Erickson appealed.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the evidence showed that Erickson was not a limited public figure — a person who is a public figure only for a particular controversy — because she “had no more access to channels of effective communication, such as the media, than any ordinary, private person,” Burnett wrote. “In fact, the record shows [Erickson] tried to avoid the spotlight and the controversy.”

As a private figure, Erickson could recover punitive damages only through a showing of actual malice. The Supreme Court found evidence that Davis had not fully investigated the article and relied too much on his interview with Beal, and concluded this was enough to establish actual malice.

Judge Costa M. Pleicones, concurring in part and dissenting in part, agreed that Erickson should be considered a private figure, but found that since the jury verdict was ruled as “advisory” by the trial court, there was no verdict to uphold and therefore the case should be re-tried.

The case now returns to the lower court for a retrial to determine damages.

(Erickson v. Jones Street Publishers, Media Counsel: John J. Kerr, Buist, Moore, Smythe & McGee, Charleston, S.C.)CM

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