The Supreme Court let stand yesterday a jury's $50,000 libel award against the Alexandria Port Packet, a weekly newspaper, for a 1980 article that allegedly implied a couple had fatally beaten their nine-month-old son.
Owners of the Packet had appealed a Virginia Supreme Court decision earlier this year that said the newspaper had displayed simple negligence in determining the truth of what it printed and must pay compensatory damages.
Yesterday's action also left intact the state supreme sourt's ruling dismissing a $100,000 punitive damage award against the Packet for the story.
The ruling "kind of nails down the negligence standard, which wounds me terribly as a journalist," said James Coldsmith, the former Packet editor and now editor and publisher of the Alexandria Gazette, who handled the article. "It's saying that simple negligence, like failing to shovel the snow off your sidewalk, is punishable by civil action against a newspaper in Virginia."
William B. Cummings, the lawyer for the couple, said yesterday he was disappointed that the Supreme Court did not reinstate the punitive damage award. But he said the couple "certainly feels good that they've been vindicated."
The son of E. Grey Lewis and Carolyn Lewis died June 12, 1980, of head injuries that subsequently were ruled accidental by Alexandria police.
Before the police ruling, the Packet published an article about child abuse. The story did not name the Lewises and used a fictitious name for their son, but portrayed the child as the victim of a "vicious attack" by child abusers.
Police later said the boy was injured when he fell from a high antique bed in the couple's Alexandria home.
According to the Virginia Supreme Court ruling, the story was based on a reporter's conversation with an Alexandria police sergeant. The sergeant later testified that he told the reporter the case was being investigated, but denied saying that police believed the child was the victim of a "vicious attack" or that police were treating the case as a murder.
An Alexandria Circuit Court judge held that the story contained enough detail to make the Lewises identifiable to relatives, friends and "virtual strangers."
The Packet, which had let its libel insurance lapse at the time, "sure has it now," said majority owner John Haynes yesterday. Haynes said the $50,000 award would not threaten the Packet's future.
The state supreme court ruling "threatens little newspapers with extinction for, at worst, simple negligence," Haynes said. "These are papers where you have two or three people trying to do everything, including hang the wallpaper." If the Packet lacked outside backers, "or if the backers had chosen to say the hell with it, the paper would have gone out of business," he said.