ANNAPOLIS, MARCH 3 -- A Maryland appeals court today reversed part of a jury decision granting $336,779 to a Silver Spring church worker who said she was defamed by her church and an assistant pastor who accused her of having an affair with another assistant pastor.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ordered a new trial in the defamation suit against St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church on Colesville Road, agreeing with the church's claim that the jury was improperly selected.
However, the court affirmed the jury's decision that the assistant pastor who made the accusations had defamed the young woman, Ginny Ann Smith, by making statements "with knowing falsity or reckless disregard of truth." Smith's lawyer, Glenn Cooper, said today he believes the decision means that Smith is entitled to all but $105,875 of the jury award.
The claims that Smith, then 24 years old and single, was having an affair with a married assistant pastor caused deep divisions and much bitterness among the 3,000 members of St. Luke when the accusations surfaced in 1984. Smith and the assistant pastor denied having an affair, but Smith's mother and the assistant pastor's wife were told by another assistant pastor that the two were having an affair, and many church members were informed of the accusations.
Church members crowded the Montgomery County Circuit Court room during the emotional 10-day trial in November 1986, and many wept when they took the stand to testify.
In the end, jurors assessed compensatory damages of $228,904 and punitive damages of $105,875 against the church and $2,000 against the pastor.
Cooper said it is too early to decide whether Smith, who is now 27 and a receptionist and tour guide at the State Department, should appeal the decision to the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals. "I don't know whether it will really be over yet," he said. "But I think her life has been substantially restored to her by the jury's decision" that she was defamed. "After the decision, she was able to hold her head up high."
The church's lawyer, H. Patrick Donohue, said he could not comment on today's appeals decision because he has not yet seen it.
After the accusations of an affair were made, Smith stopped attending St. Luke, one of the church's pastors retired and the two assistant pastors were assigned to different congregations. Donohue said he believes "most of the major scars" have healed. "Anything like this was an unfortunate situation for any congregation," he added. "It's not something that any organization -- religious or not -- enjoys going through."