Jury returns $3.2 million verdict against newspaper, source
DELAWARE–In mid-January, a state Superior Court jury in Wilmington awarded a doctor who claimed she was libeled by a Wilmington News Journal story more than $3 million in actual damages and an additional $280,000 in punitive damages.
Margo Kanaga sued the newspaper, medical reporter Jane Harriman, and former patient Pamela Kane in December 1992 after a July 1992 News Journal article by Harriman reported that Kane planned to file a complaint about Kanaga with the New Castle County Medical Society.
Under the headline “Patient feels betrayed: says proposed hysterectomy wasn’t needed,” the article reported that Kane’s complaint accused Kanaga of committing “a serious breach of the standard of care a patient has the right to expect.”
The medical society cleared Kanaga of any wrongdoing.
Prior to the trial, the News Journal asked the court to grant summary judgment in its favor. The newspaper argued that its article could not serve as the basis for a libel suit because it was a statement of opinion and was protected by the privilege to report on official proceedings.
The court granted the newspaper’s request, but the state Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the case back for trial.
At trial, Kanaga argued that the newspaper had been negligent in printing the article without waiting for the medical society to rule on Kane’s complaint.
The jury found the newspaper had been negligent, and that the doctor lost more than $3 million as a result of the story. It awarded Kanaga $2.6 million from the Gannett-owned newspaper and $402,000 from Kane.
In late January, the jury awarded an additional $280,000 in damages designed to punish the press and its source, including $250,000 from the News Journal, $20,000 from Kane and $10,000 from Harriman.
Robert Bernius, an attorney for the News Journal, said the newspaper planned to ask the court to grant judgment in its favor notwithstanding the jury’s verdict based on the protections provided by the First Amendment for expressions of opinion, fair comment, and coverage of official proceedings. He said the newspaper also planned to ask for a new trial on the issue of damages from economic loss sustained by Kanaga. (Kanaga v. Gannett; Media Counsel: Robert Bernius, Washington)