NJ Supreme Court Takes a Mulligan in Defamation Ruling

On May 16, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an order in W.J.A. v. D.A. holding that presumed damages play a role in defamation cases even in private plaintiff cases where there are no matters of public concern.  But after they realized they goofed based on a statute that provided otherwise, they reversed course a few days later.

In the underlying defamation case, D.A. claimed that his uncle W.J.A. sexually molested him and created a website discussing the abuse. W.J.A. sued for defamation.  The superior court granted summary judgment for D.A. It found that since the postings on the website were more akin to libel (written defamation), W.J.A. had to prove actual injury to his reputation, which he had failed to do.

The appellate court reversed and held that a nominal damages award may be made in a defamation case to a plaintiff who has not proven actual harm to his reputation, meaning that a plaintiff may be awarded minimal damages by a jury without any proof of monetary harm. These damages, not based on any monetary loss, are known as presumed damages. They serve as a means to vindicate the plaintiff’s character through a jury verdict establishing that the defamatory statement is false. Furthermore, the Court stated that presumed damages were sufficient to be used as a foundation for punitive damages in a defamation case.

Initially, the Supreme Court issued an order, agreeing with the holding in respect of presumed damages.  However on May 21, only five days later, the Court issued a corrected opinion revising its earlier rule. Apparently the lawyers representing two amici curiae — the New Jersey Press Association and the American Civil Liberties Union — sent a letter to the court immediately after the May 16 opinion was issued advising the court that its decision was in direct violation of the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A: 15-5.13(c). In fact the statute says specifically that an award of nominal damages cannot support an award of punitive damages. Thus in New Jersey, even in cases where a plaintiff may pursue a defamation claim with only nominal damages, he may not request punitive damages unless he can demonstrate actual compensable harm to his reputation.

The revised opinion was issued without comment, and mirrors the original save for the fact that the Court removed three sentences from its original opinion, all relating to punitive damages standard, and all in violation of the Punitive Damages Act.

Thanks to Remy Cahn for her contribution to this post.
If you would like further information, please write to mbono@wcmlaw.com