NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · PENNSYLVANIA · Libel · Nov. 1, 2006
Pennsylvania paper ordered to pay in libel suit
Nov. 1, 2006 · A Pennsylvania newspaper last week lost a ruling in a libel case brought by a local businessman who claims the paper defamed him in a series of articles that linked him to an organized crime investigation and other crimes for which he was never charged.
Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella said The Citizens’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and other defendants must pay a total of $3.5 million for defaming businessman Thomas Joseph.
In a verdict that simply states it was “based upon the credible evidence presented at trial,” Ciavarella awarded $2 million to Joseph and an additional $1.5 million in business damages to Acumark, one of Joseph’s businesses.
Ciavarella’s verdict does not go into the reasoning behind his decision in its sparse three pages, as is typical procedure in Luzerne County, Pa. According to the paper’s lawyer, W. Thomas McGough, when the appeal is filed, the judge will flesh out the verdict with an opinion.
The newspaper argued that Joseph failed to prove that the articles hurt Joseph’s business or were in fact defamatory.
Ciavarella’s opinion left unresolved the question of which articles he found defamatory to Joseph or whether Joseph had been considered a private or public figure, an important distinction in a defamation case.
If Joseph is considered a public official, he must bear a higher burden of proof.
“You don’t get to recover in a defamation case unless you prove that the newspaper knew the statement was false or was reckless,” McGough said.
Ciavarella ruled in favor of the paper on Joseph’s claims for punitive damages. The judge also ruled against separate claims for damages by two of Joseph’s other businesses, Airport Limousine and Taxi Service Inc. and Airport Taxi Limousine and Courier Service of Lehigh Valley.
The paper plans to appeal the decision, according to McGough.
(Joseph v. The Scranton Times, Media Counsel: W. Thomas McGough, Reed Smith LLP, Pittsburgh) — HS