$7 Million Libel Judgment Against Philadelphia Magazine Is Overturned
Jul. 11, 1987
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A judge has thrown out a $7 million libel judgment against Philadelphia Magazine on grounds the trial judge may have used a faulty legal standard and has ordered a new trial.
The decision by Judge Frederick Edenharter of Berks County Common Pleas Court sets aside a 1983 decision by former Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Bernard Snyder.
Edenharter was given the case after appellate courts interceded, ruling Snyder had improperly presided over hearings on a defense motion that he be disqualified.
Snyder in 1985 became the first sitting Philadelphia judge to be voted off the bench in a retention election.
The $7 million award followed a bitter six-month trial in 1982 on a lawsuit by James Reginald Edghill, who objected to an August 1971 article on Atlantic City, N.J., that called Edghill a cocaine dealer, ''one of the biggest dealers in town.''
The magazine objected during and after the trial that Snyder was biased in favor of Edghill's attorney at the time, M. Mark Mendel.
Edenharter's ruling was dated July 1 but not received by attorneys in the case until Friday. No new trial date was set.
Edenharter said he ordered a new trial not on the basis of bias, but because Snyder was removed from the case after he awarded the money but before he announced any conclusions of law to support the decision. That, Edenharter wrote, made it impossible to know if Snyder applied the relevant law.
At the time of the trial, state law put the burden on the magazine to prove that its article was true. Since then, a U.S. Supreme Court decision has put the burden on Edghill to prove the article was false.
''May we dare to speculate'' which standard Snyder applied, Edenharter asked. ''We think not.''
''We're absolutely delighted,'' magazine attorney Peter E. Hearn said. ''We think the right result has been reached at the end of a long road.''
Edghill's present attorney, Dennis J. Cogan, said he would recommend that his client not appeal Edenharter's decision and ''hopefully we can get to trial soon'' to settle the case.
In February 1983, the magazine filed a motion for Snyder to disqualify himself, contending that he was biased in Mendel's favor. The magazine also said that publisher D. Herbert Lipson had been told that the case ''was fixed.''
In May 1983, Snyder granted Edghill the $7 million award, without ruling on the motion. Then he began hearings on the motion, during which Mendel and magazine attorney David H. Marion exchanged accusations of misconduct.
The hearing ended without a ruling when Snyder refused to allow Mendel's former law clerk, Jill R. Cohen, to testify. Cohen later filed an affidavit saying she was ready to testify that Mendel and Snyder had met often while the case was being tried, had exchanged insulting remarks about the magazine's attorneys and discussed evidentiary tactics.
Appellate courts interceded and the case was given to Edenharter.
In March, the state Supreme Court ruled that Snyder's conduct of the case had violated judicial canons. An investigation by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board found that Snyder and Mendel had met privately, that Snyder improperly tried to preside over the disqualification hearings when he was a witness, and that he had allowed the proceedings to degenerate into name- calling and ''other unprofessional conduct.''