Entertainer Carol Burnett scored a stunning victory over the weekly supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer today, as a Los Angeles jury awarded her $1.6 million in damages because of a 1976 article which implied she had been drunk in a Washington restaurant.
Burnett, who said she planned to give the money to charity, called the decision a victory over a publication that practiced "not journalism" but "dirty pool." An attorney for the Enquirer called the decision "erroneous and completely unwarranted" and said an appeal would be made.
Attorneys familiar with the case were astonished at the size of the award, which amounted to $24,242 for each word in the short item allegedly describing the popular comedian's evening at the Rive Gauche restaurant. Burnett said she was deeply hurt by the item because her parents had been alcoholics and she had crusaded against alcohol and drug abuse. She admitted on the stand that the item had not hurt her career.
"I have to regard this case as unique," said Ken Kulzick, a Los Angeles attorney, who, though not involved in the case, has defended media clients such as New West magazine and the American Broadcasting Co. "There was the most appealing of all possible plaintiffs, and a relatively unsympathetic defendant, so I view the case as one of limited impact."
He said it was significant, however, that the Enquirer lost even after it printed a retraction. Similar publications "will have to take a better look from now on," Kulzick said.
The jury was in its fourth day of deliberations when it finally rendered a verdict. The decision was unanimous, but only 11 jurors took part because two panel members were excused early in the case and only one alternate was available. The two excused jurors admitted they had seen or heard about a nationally televised attack on the Enquirer by "Tonight" show host Johnny Carson. Carson had been infuriated by a story that said he and his third wife were near divorce. He called those responsible for the article "liars" on the air.
This was the first time in its 28-year history the Nation Enquirer had ever reached trial in a libel case. Celebrities usually treat derogatory gossip in such publications as an occupational hazard, but Burnett vowed to take the weekly to court no matter how much time or money she would have to spend.
She testified during the two-week trial that the item "portrays me as being physically abusive. It is disgusting, and it is a pack of lies." The Enquirer faces about 10 other suits from Hollywood-connected personalities, including Linda Blatty, wife of William Peter Blatty; Rory Calhoun; agent Marty Ingels and his wife, Shirley Jones; Ed McMahon; Phil Silvers; Rudy Vallee; David Parlour, former husband of Jane Powell; Paul Lynde; and Elvis Presley's dentist, Dr. Max Shapiro.
The most recent suit was filed three days ago by singer Helen Reddy and her husband, Jeff Wald. "Yippee!" said Wald, when asked about his reaction to the Burnett verdict. An item in the weekly has called Wald "a madman" and said Reddy was a "fading star" whose last Las Vegas engagement has been "widely panned." Wald said, "I wanted to file before the Burnett verdict came out because I wanted them to know that win, lose or draw [in the Burnett case], I am not going to go away."
Meanwhile, the tabloid's lead story for its March 31 edition alleges that Elizabeth Taylor's seventh marriage "is heading for a quick ending," and sports the headline: "7the Marriage Crumbling. Liz Taylor and Hubby in Raging Public Fights." The story prompted Taylor's husband, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) to issue a statement yesterday through his office saying the couple's attorneys "are seeking a prompt retraction from the National Enquirer for the false story which appeared in the tabloid. If the retraction is not satisfactory, the Warners will consider litigation."
After the verdict was delivered yesterday in the Burnett trial, Marty Ingels, a former comedian, said he and Shirley Jones, his singer-wife, were "ecstatic, elated, exhilarated, and we feel pretty good too." He said his wife had recently finished discovery testimony with Enquirer attorney Masterson and told him, "How do you go home at night? How do you face yourself?"
Masterson issued a statement that said, "We believe the decision was erroneous and completely unwarranted by the evidence in the case. We plan to appeal and we are confident that our appeal will be upheld." He said 10 suits against the publication "is a very small number -- particularly in light of the many celebrity stories the Enquirer prints." He called the trial "something of a circus" due to the involvement of public figures. Masterson had earlier complained about California Governor Edmond G. (Jerry) Brown, who telephoned his support to Burnett during the trial.
He said it was "particularly unfortunate" that news reports had failed to convey that the retraction "embodied a sincere apology to Ms. Burnett."
In announcing the verdict, the jury said it was awarding $300,000 in general damages and $1.3 million in punitive damages, meaning damages designed to punish the publication and deter it from similar acts in the future.
The case began on March 2, 1976, when the Enquirer printed the following item in Steve Tenney's gossip column under a headline that read, "Carol Burnett and Henry K, in row":
"At a Washington restaurant, a boisterous Carol Burnett had a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger. Then she traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert. But Carol really raised eyebrows when she accidentally knocked a glass of wine over one diner -- and started giggling instead of apologizing. The guy wasn't amused and 'accidentally' spilled a glass of water over Carol's dress."
At the trial, Burnett testified that she was rehearsing in New York for a special with Beverly Sills, "Sills and Burnett at the Met," when the item appeared. As she walked to rehearsal, a cab driver yelled at her: "Hey, Carol, I didn't know you liked to get in fights." She said she spent the whole day crying. "I started to shake," she said. "Then I calmed down and I called my lawyer and I said, 'I am going to sue.'"
She said she had only had "two, possibly three" glasses of wine at the restaurant. She said she had been intoxicated only once in her life, during college. At the dinner, she said she had a good time but did nothing unusual and did not leave her table except to go to the ladies' room. "There was banter," she said, "it was nice. It was really a wonderful evening. Everybody was having a celebration." Burnett recalled being introduced to Kissinger as she left the restaurant Kissinger said something, she thought, about seeing her the next evening at the White House.
Brian (Mike) Walker, the editor who actually wrote the item, testified that he obtained the information from a stringer he considered reliable, but in a deposition the stringer indicated he had trouble confirming that Burnett spilled any wine or had water spilled on her. He said the maitre d' had told him Burnett had taken her dessert around the restaurant "in a boisterous or flamboyant manner . . . and that she had been drinking alcoholic beverages."
Judge Peter S. Smith of Los Angeles Superior Court helped Burnett's case by ruling that the Enquirer was a magazine for the purposes of a California law that protects newspapers, but not magazines, from large libel judgments if they print a timely retraction. After receiving a letter from Burnett's attorney challenging the item, the Enquirer ran this retraction in the middle of the same gossip column, on April 13, 1976: "An item in this column on March 2 erroneously reported that Carol Burnett had an argument with Henry Kissinger at a Washington restaurant and became boisterous, disturbing other guests. We understand these events did not occur and we are sorry for any embarassment our report may have caused Miss Burnett."