GEN. ARIEL SHARON'S long and bitter suit against Time has come out about as well as it could, given the circumstances. Credit should go first of all to the six members of what seems to have been a very conscientious jury. The result also owes much to the lawyers -- to Time's, who proposed giving the jury a series of questions to guide them through the tangle of issues, and to Gen. Sharon's, who accepted the idea. That led to Judge Abraham D. Sofaer's instructions to the jury to consider the complex elements in a libel case one by one.
Gen. Sharon got one thing that he badly wanted and to which he was entitled -- a determination that one paragraph in Time magazine two years ago was wrong. It revolved around the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in the Lebanese refugee camps in 1982, and the commission established by the Israeli government under Yitzhak Kahan, a former Supreme Court president, to investigate it. Time wrote that a secret appendix to the Kahan report included details of a conversation in which Gen. Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, was supposed to have discussed with Phalangist leaders their need to take revenge on the Palestinians. In the trial, Time's reporter acknowledged that he had no source for the assertion, and that it was an inference -- "my evaluation." Time acknowledged before the end of the trial that there is "clear and convincing evidence" that no such conversation was contained in the appendix. The jury properly held the paragraph to be false.
But if the jury gave Gen. Sharon the verdict to which he was entitled on that point, it did not give him more than he was entitled to. It did not provide him with any broader vindication regarding the massacre. There the authoritative judgment continues to be that of the Kahan commission, which found that he bore an "indirect responsibility." Nor did the jury give Gen. Sharon the $50 million that he had claimed in damages. While the paragraph was false and its authors had been careless, the jury said, Time believed it to be true when it was published. Under the malice rule -- devised to protect publications from being crippled by suits over unintentional errors -- that finding bars liability. The case never advanced to the issue of damages.
The crucial innovation in this case was the segmented verdict. The judge asked the jury to come back with separate findings on the questions of defamation, truth or falsity, and state of mind. The Sharon jury first decided that the famous paragraph was defamatory -- that is, harmful to his reputation -- and then that it was false. It then proceeded to the question of Time's state of mind and found that the magazine had not knowingly printed a falsehood.
These suits by government officials over their official conduct are troubling enough, and Time has paid a heavy price in defending itself. But the procedural technique of having a jury decide each element of the suit separately can help ensure that the difficult standard for libel claims set by the Supreme Court is truly met.