The Washington Post yesterday asked a federal judge to overturn a jury's verdict last July that the newspaper libeled Mobil Oil Corp. president William P. Tavoulareas in a 1979 article and dismiss $2,050,000 in damages he had been awarded.
Irving Younger, a lawyer representing The Post, told U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch that Tavoulareas' lawyers "failed to prove the falsity" of the portions of the Nov. 30, 1979, article that they claimed were libelous.
Moreover, Younger said, "There's nothing to support the jury's finding of constitutonal malice"--the standard by which Gasch had instructed the six-member jury to decide the case. Knowingly publishing a false article or demonstrating a reckless disregard for the accuracy of an article constitutes constitutional malice in libel cases.
"We contend the jury's verdict was a mistake," Younger said, adding that Gasch, by overturning the jury's verdict, would not only "well serve the First Amendment, but also the rule of law."
Tavoulareas' lawyer, John J. Walsh of New York, argued that there was no reason to reverse the verdict.
"Now that the trial is over," Walsh said, "they the newspaper would like to see the trier of fact changed from the jury to the court. The Post wanted a jury trial; they got a jury trial."
The case centers on the validity of a story that described the creation of the Atlas Maritime Co., a London shipping management firm headed by Tavoulareas' son Peter. The Tavoulareases claimed that the story held them up to ridicule by suggesting the elder Tavoulareas used his Mobil influence to establish his son in business.
The jury ruled that the newspaper, reporter Patrick Tyler who wrote the article and Sandy Golden, a special correspondent who led Tyler to an initial source for the story, had libeled the Mobil president but that they had not libeled his son.
Walsh argued that Tyler, in preparing the story, had "disregarded anything that would contradict the main theme: that William Tavoulareas was an evil genius who concocted a scheme to set up a company with the purpose of aiding his son."
Gasch gave no indication of when he would rule in the case.