Pennsylvania court panel vacates own decision, will reconsider record libel award
In early January a three judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia vacated its own November decision that upheld a libel verdict against The Philadelphia Inquirer but reduced the $34 million in damages awarded to former Philadelphia prosecutor Richard Sprague.
The appellate panel withdrew its ruling after the newspaper requested a hearing before the full Superior Court. The panel agreed to reconsider the case, but the reconsideration will be before the same three-judge panel, not the entire court.
In the November decision, the appellate court reduced a May 1990 $31.5 million punitive damage award to Sprague to $21.5 million, but did not alter the $2.5 million in compensatory damages awarded. The 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 claiming that an article implied that he blocked a homicide investigation that focused on the son of a police captain and that he had participated in an illegal wiretapping scheme.
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 1990 judgment for Sprague, the $34 million award was the largest libel judgment against the news media on record. (Sprague v. Walter; Media Counsel: Robert Heim, Philadelphia)