Defendants Seek Huge Judgments, But Average Award Is $60,000 He that filches from me my
Feb. 19, 1985
Defendants Seek Huge Judgments, But Average Award Is $60,000 ''He that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.'' - William Shakespeare in ''Othello.''
WASHINGTON (AP) _ It is difficult to attach a price tag to some things, like your reputation. But that's the name of the game in libel law.
Those who say they were libeled most often are free to pick their own price tag, and frequently ask for millions.
No one is certain how retired Gen. William Westmoreland's $120 million lawsuit against CBS, which was dropped Monday, stacked up against the all-time hefty assessments of reputational worth.
''It's very easy to keep your fingers on the zeros when typing out a complaint,'' said Henry Kaufman of the Libel Defense Resource Center, an information clearing house in New York City financed by major news organizations. ''There is very, very little relationship, in theory at least, between what a libel plaintiff asks for and what a jury awards. We've never tried to correlate the two.''
Some states bar people who sue for libel from putting a price tag on their complaint. But most states and the federal courts allow it.
''It's an anachronistic practice,'' said Bruce Sanford, a Washington lawyer who represents news media defendants in libel suits. ''The figures (attached to such lawsuits) are meaningless and, at the same time, inflammatory.''
Statistics compiled by Kaufman's organization show that in recent years those people who convince a jury that a news media defendant libeled them are apt to win ''megaverdicts.''
The average jury verdict in a news media libel case today is more than $2 million, but no one ever has collected even $1 million.
Even though news media defendants lose six of every 10 libel cases decided by juries, those jury awards not thrown out on appeal are reduced, on average, to $60,000.
Of all libel suits against the news media, 74 percent are thrown out before ever reaching a jury.
''Megaverdicts mostly serve to prolong the judicial proceedings,'' Sanford said in a recent interview. ''The real costs of libel suits are the costs of defending against them, in dollars and disruption.''
The largest libel award ever in the United States was the $40 million assessed against Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in favor of a competitor, Penthouse publisher Robert Guccione. The jury award later was thrown out.
Norman Roy Grutman, the New York lawyer who represented Guccione and who has sued Flynt on four or five other occasions, said, ''It is the rare case in which a defamation should result in a large dollar figure judgment.''
The most highly publicized libel cases usually involve public officials or public figures, such as Westmoreland.
The retired general sued over a 1982 broadcast alleging that he, as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in the 1960s, conspired with others to falsify intelligence estimates of enemy troop strength to win American support for the U.S. combat role there.
Since a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1964, people in the public eye not only have to prove that the allegedly libelous statement was false, but that it was made with ''actual malice'' - knowledge or ''reckless disregard'' of its falsity.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon lost his $50 million libel suit against Time magazine when a jury ruled in January that he failed to prove such actual malice.
Others who sue for libel must prove that the statement was false and that it was made negligently - an easier standard to satisfy.