A U.S. District court jury yesterday awarded a former Miss Wyoming $26.5 million in damages from Penthouse magazine.
The suit claimed that Kimerli Jayne Pring had been libeled by a fictional story in the magazine that told of the sexual expliots of a baton-twirling Miss America contestant.
Gerald L. Spence, Pring's attorney, called the decision "the largest standing libel verdict in the nation."
The jury of three men and three women awarded Pring $1.5 million in actual damages from the magazine and $25 million in punitive damages. It also awarded her $10,000 in actual damages and $25,000 in punitive damages from the author of the story free-lance writer Philip Cioffari.
In New York City, Bob Guccione, owner and publisher of Penthouse, said: "The Wyoming decision is not worth the paper it's written on. It is a product of misplaced passion and prejudice, not of reason or law. And because of its chilling effect on the normal constitutional protections of the press, neither we nor our legal advisers have any doubt that it will be reversed on appeal."
In Cheyenne, Penthouse's lawyer, Paul D. Cooper, said the verdict "says you can't write fiction anymore."
The former Miss Wyoming 1978, blond, blue-eyed, 25, wept silently as the verdict was announced and then turned to hug Spence, the same attorney who two years ago won the $10.5-million judgment in the Karen Silkwood case.
"This case starts to set limits that people like Guccione have to abide by," Spence said. "I think Mr. Guccione can hear that all the way back to his little old penthouse in New York. I'm proud of the fact that a Wyoming jury had the courage to make that decision. It means you can't wrap yourself in the American flag and libel people."
Pring, a business student at the University of Wyoming, had originally sued for $7.6 million in personal damages and $100 million in punitive damages, claiming she was libeled by an August 1979 Penthouse story about a fictitious Miss Wyoming who could levitate men by exotic sexual practices, and did so at a Miss Amercia pageant. The fictitious Miss Wyoming performed suggestive sexual gestures with her baton in contrast to what Pring called her own "decent, traditional" performance.
There is little question that the story, titled "Miss Wyoming Saves the World," was meant as a satire. But the crucial questions in the lawsuit were whether author Cioffari, 40, a Ft. Lee, N.J., free-lance writer, used Pring as the basis for his central character, whether there were enough similarities between the two Miss Wyomings to identify Pring and whether Penthouse should have checked to determine whether those similarities existed.
Cioffari said yesterday that he was "surprised and disappointed" at the verdict. "My story was a fantastic story of imagination," he said. The story was dubbed "humor" in the magazine's table of contents, and was nowhere identified as fiction.
Penthouse magazine, fresh from its recent battle with Moral Majority spokesman Rev. Jerry Falwell, claimed the entire story was fictional and that even if the jury found some similarities between the two characters, actual malice must be proved because, the magazine's lawyers contended, Miss Wyoming is a public figure.
Ping said she shared at least 15 similarities with the fictitious Miss Wyoming. The most obvious similarities, she contended, were: both she and the fictional contestant were baton twirlers who performed at the pageant; both wore blue warm-up suits and blue chiffon dresses at the pageant; both traveled to the pageant with small contingents of supporters; and both performed as drum majorettes for four years in Laramie, Wyo. -- Pring as the featured twirler at University of Wyoming football games, the fictitous Miss Wyoming as a twirler at Laramie high-school games.
Pring was born with a club foot and turned to baton twirling for therapy after surgery corrected the condition when she was 5. Seventeen years later, in August 1978, she captured the U.S. Twirling Association's Grand National Twirling Championship. One month later, she performed with her baton at the Miss America pageant, the only contestant that year to use a baton in the talent competition.
Yesterday's decision climaxed two weeks of heated courtroom battle pitting a local woman against a controversial New Yorker.
Pring arrived at court each day wearing the conservative outfits of the career woman she plans to be, exuding the learned poise and grace characteristic of beauty-contest competitors.
But on the stand last week, that self-possession faded as a weeping Pring told how she had gained weight and become relusive since the publication of the story. Pring said the article had caused parents to remove their children from the twirling classes she concluded, and that she had been repeatedly accused of permitting the story to advance her career.
"People cannot talk to Kim Pring anymore. They're talking to Miss Penthouse . . .," she sobbed. "I went from the most decent girl to the most indecent girl in 3,500 words.
"It doesn't matter what you give me, whether it's $100 million or $200 million or $300 million, I would give it all back to have my normal life again," she told the jury. Although Pring's case was a Wyuoming cause celebre -- local headline writers refer to Pring as Kim -- she was clearly not the only attraction in the courtroom. Perhaps even more spectators were drawn to the trial to watch Pring's lawyer, Spence, 52, who is a legendary figure in his home state.
Spence, of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is said to be one of the nation's finest lawyers. He burst onto the national scene two years ago when he won the Karen Silkwood plutonium contamination case against the Kerr-McGee Corp. Lawyers and law students from across Wyoming and neighboring states traveled here to watch Spence square off with Guccione.
Spence was an imposing presence in the courtroom. Six-foot-three in the cowboy boots he always favors -- taller and bulkier in the 10-gallon Stetson and the full-length beaver-skin overcoat he wears outside the courtroom -- the 220-lb. attorney seemed to dominate the proceedings with the force of his personality, with a carefully controlled voice at times booming, at times deep and almost caressing.
From the start of the trial, Spence sought to characterize the case in us-against-them terms and the Penthouse story as offensive not only to Pring but to the people of Wyoming. In his opening statement, Spence referred to Guccione as the "gentleman sitting over there in the velvet pants." And when he questioned Guccione on the stand, he repeatedly suggested that the magazine chose to write about Miss Wyoming because the state has so few Penthouse readers who might be offended.
"Isn't it true that because Miss Wyoming was from Wyoming, she was a sitting duck, an easy target?" Spence demanded of Guccione, who denied it. Penthouse's lawyer Cooper, of Denver, accused Spence of interjecting "emotionalism" and "prejudice" into the trial.
One of Cooper's associates, Denver lawyer Gail Laxalt, daughter of Sen. Paul Laxalt (R.-Nev.), said in an out-of-court interview that Spence was incorrect in suggesting that the West had different, more traditional, values than the rest of the country.
Spence and Guccione had nearly come to blows at a deposition session in Manhattan last summer, so the stage was set when Guccione took the stand here last week. The two men dueled for more than three hours. Guccione had forsaken his traditional gold chains, the partially unbuttoned shirt and the tinted eyeglasses for a more conservative sportscoat look, and sought to characterize the case as a personal assault by Spence on the First Amendment.
"We have a purely fictitious character here which you and you alone are trying to imbue with the characteristics of a real person," he told Spence. "Unless Miss Pring can levitate a man, the story is fiction."
Guccione said that if magazines are required to check to make sure fictitious characters don't resemble real people, "there wouldn't be another piece of fiction published in the U.S."
Spence maintained that Penthouse had a policy of publishing shocking stories designed to undermine "decent" American institutions such as the Miss America pageant, and that the magazine used thinly disguised real people in scandalous circumstances to entice readers.
Guccione denied the charges, and said that Spence was in effect challenging constitutionally protected satire. "In a society such as ours, there is no such thing as a scared cow -- not Jesus Christ nor Miss Wyoming," he told the jury.
When Cioffari -- a professor of English at New Jersey's William Patterson College who also has written for Hustler, Gallery and Chic magazines -- appeared in the courtroom, he acknowledged that he attended the finals of the Miss America pageant in which Pring competed. But Pring, who was not a finalist, appeared only briefly that night, and Cioffari maintained he never saw or heard of her.
Spence suggested that Cioffari actually attended the pageant two nights before the finals when Pring performed a so-called "mouth roll" with her baton which the lawyer suggested inspired the story. A mouth roll is a traditional baton-twirling exercise.
The jury members deliberated for about six hours yesterday before returning their 11-part verdict. All six were middle-aged or older. There was a high-school physical education teacher, a career National Guardsman, a retired Air Force man employed by the Wyoming highway department and two housewives; at least two of the jurors were active in the affairs of their churches.