The Virginia Supreme Court, in a ruling based in part on a libel case involving an Alexandria newspaper, today held that compensatory damages can be awarded if a publication has been negligent in determining the truth.
The Virginia court thus followed the standard set by a number of other states and the District of Columbia for determining what constitutes libel. It restricts the awarding of punitive damages to cases in which the publication has shown a reckless disregard for the truth.
David Cohler, an attorney who represented the Virginia Press Association, said the decision "would create problems for the media because it's almost impossible to determine what a jury will decide is negligence." But he added he was "not surprised" by the ruling.
While the U.S. Supreme Court set the standard of libel for public officials in a 1974 case against The New York Times, it has left it up to the states to determine what degree of fault is necessary to constitute libel against private individuals. That is what the Virginia court did today.
The decision, growing out of appeals in cases involving three newspapers, was a partial victory for The Alexandria Port Packet. The weekly community newspaper had been ordered in 1982 to pay $150,000 in damages to an Alexandria couple who had claimed a 1980 story wrongly described the death of their 9-month-old child as an example of child abuse.
The state court today reversed the jury's award of $100,000 in punitive damages to the couple, saying the Packet reporter and editor did not have "a high degree of awareness" that the newspaper's statements "were probably false." The court affirmed a $50,000 award for compensatory damages from the Packet.
The newspaper, which had let its libel insurance lapse at the time of the suit, might have to fold if forced to pay the initial verdict, its editors said in appealing last year to other newspapers for support in the lawsuit. Joanne F. Alper, an attorney for the Port Packet, said today, "We are very, very pleased they rejected the punitive award."
William B. Cummings, an attorney for the couple, called the decision disappointing but said the couple feels "vindicated" by the award of compensatory damages. "It's the case left a scar," he said.
In the Port Packet case, the court found that the newspaper had libeled Cummings' clients, former Navy lawyer E. Grey Lewis and his wife Carolyn, without ever using their names.
In a July 1980 article, the Port Packet portrayed the couple's 9-month-old son, who died in an accidental fall from a high antique bed in the couple's Alexandria home, as the victim of a "vicious attack" by child abusers. "Detectives are treating his death as a homicide," the story said.
According to the state court's 5-to-2 ruling, the story was based on a conversation between reporter Adrian Higgins and an Alexandria police sergeant. The sergeant testified that he told Higgins police were investigating the child's death, without revealing the Lewises' name.
But the officer said he never told Higgins police believed the child was the victim of "a vicious attack" or said police were treating the case as a murder, according to the majority opinion. The child's death was later ruled to be accidental.
Though Port Packet attorneys hoped to convince them differently, justices agreed with an Alexandria Circuit Court judge who held that the story contained enough details to identify the Lewises to relatives, friends "and virtual strangers." They cited as an example Carolyn Lewis' testimony of how a casual acquaintance "made a complete turn-around and walked in the other direction" after seeing her in a grocery store.
The justices also affirmed awards of compensatory damages against the Goochland [County] Gazette and Charlottesville Daily Progress.