For everyone who says that juries aren’t giving out mega-verdicts anymore, here’s your exception: Last week, a federal jury in Philadelphia gave a $5,000,000 early X’mas present to a couple law professors in a defamation suit.† (Jury’s Verdict pdf file).
Outside of legal contexts, the term defamation gets thrown around a lot, and although many people know what it is, most non-lawyers do not know what it takes to win a defamation lawsuit. In reality, defamation suits aren’t very common, because they are in fact difficult to win. Why? Because the plaintiff must prove all of these elements:
(1) the defendant made a false & defamatory statement (if the statement was printed it is libel, an oral statement would be slander);
(2) to a third party;
(3) knowledge that the statement was false (or in some cases, merely negligence about the statement’s truthfulness); and
(4) damages, or special harm that was caused by the statement.‡
Since 1987, the two professors, David Rudovsky (Penn. Law) and Leonard Sosnov (Widener) were the authors of the treatise Pennsylvania Criminal Procedure: Law, Commentary & Forms, published by West, but after they got into a dispute with West over royalties and compensation, they withdrew from the project. See Complaint (pdf file). But after the authors withdrew, West went ahead and published an update (aka “pocket part”) which is supposed to contain important changes and updates to the laws that are the book’s subject matter. Also, West continued to list Rudovsky and Sosnov as the authors. The problem was (in addition to using the authors’ names without their consent) that the update West published omitted material changes in the law, and basically made the purported authors look like imbeciles.
The authors sued the legal publishing giant for (1) false advertising, under the Lanham Act; (2) unauthorized use of name, under Pa. state law; and common law claims for (3) defamation; (4) invasion of privacy/appropriation of name; and (5) false light. The trial court ultimately dismissed the first 2 claims, but the jury rendered a verdict in the authors’ favor on the defamation and invasion of privacy claims. It seems likely, however, given the enormous resources of West Publishing and its parent company is Thomson Reuters this case is probably headed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where West will argue that the punitive damages award is grossly disproportionate to the compensatory damages.
†Credit: Erika Wayne, of The Legal Intelligencer first reported this story in her blog, which has additional case history and details.
‡ See Sheldon W. Halpern, The Law of Defamation, Privacy, Publicity, & Moral Right: Cases and Materials on Protection of Personality Interests 4th ed., 6 (JPM Books 2000).