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August Opinion of the Supreme Court of Alabama (30,) (1962)

Amount Of Damages

[45] Under assignment of error No. 81, The Times argues those grounds of its motion for a new trial asserting that the damages awarded the plaintiff are excessive, and the result of bias, passion, and prejudice.

In Johnson Publishing Co. v. Davis, supra, Justice Stakely in rather definitive discussion of a court's approach to the question of the amount of damages awarded in libel actions made the following observations:

"* * * The punishment by way of damages is intended not alone to punish the wrongdoer, but as a deterrent to others similarly minded. Liberty National Life Insurance Co. v. Weldon, supra; Advertiser Co. v. Jones, supra [267 Ala. 171, 100 So.2d 696, 61 A.L.R.2d 1346]; Webbv. Gray, 181 Ala. 408, 62 So.194."

"Where words are libelous per se and as heretofore stated we think the published words in the present case were libelous per se, the right to damages results as a consequence, because there is a tendency of such libel to injure the person libeled in his reputation, profession, trade or business, and proof of such pecuniary injury is not required, such injury being implied. Advertiser Co. v. Jones, supra [169 Ala. 196, 53 So.759]; Webb v. Gray, supra; Brown v. Publishers: George Knapp & Co., 213 Mo. 655, 112 S.W. 474; Maytag Co. v. Meadows Mfg. Co., 7 Cir., 45 F.2d 299."

"Because damages are presumed from the circulation of a publication which is libelous per se, it is not necessary that there be any correlation between the actual and punitive damages. Advertiser Co. v. Jones, supra; Webbv. Gray, supra; Whitcomb v. Hearst Corp., 329 Mass. 193, 107 N.E.2d 295."

"The extent of the circulation of the libel is a proper matter of consideration by the jury in assessing plaintiff's damages. Foerster v. Ridder, Sup., 57 N.Y.S.2d 668; Whitcomb v. Hearst Corp., supra."

* * * * * *

"In Webb v. Gray, supra [181 Ala. 408, 62 So.196], this court made it clear that a different rule for damages is applicable in libel than in malicious prosecution cases and other ordinary tort cases. In this case the court stated in effect that in libel cases actual damages are presumed if the statement is libelous per se and accordingly no actual damages need be proved.

* * * * * *

"In Advertiser Co. v. Jones, supra, this Court considered in a libel case the claim that the damages were excessive and stated: 'While the damages are large in this case we cannot say they were excessive. There was evidence from which the jury might infer malice, and upon which they might award punitive damages. This being true, neither the law nor the evidence furnishes us any standard by which can ascertain certainly that they were excessive. The trial court heard all of this evidence, saw the witnesses, observed their expression and demeanor, and hence was in a better position to judge of the extent of punishment which the evidence warranted than we are, who must form our conclusions upon the mere narrative of the transcript. This court, in treating of excessive verdicts in cases in which punitive damages could be awarded. through Justice Haralson spoke and quoted as follows: 'There is no legal measure of damages in cases of this character.'"

* * * * * *

"The Supreme Court of Missouri considered the question in Brown v. Publishers: George Knapp & Co., 213 Mo. 655, 112 S.W. 474, 485, and said: 'The action for libel is one to recover damages for injury to man's reputation and good name. It is not necessary, in order to recover general damages for words which are actionable per se, that the plaintiff should have suffered any actual or constructive pecuniary loss. In such action, the plaintiff is entitled to recover as general damages for the injury to his feelings which the libel of the defendant has caused and the mental anguish or suffering which he had endured as a consequence thereof. So many considerations enter into the awarding of damages by a jury in a libel case that the courts approach the question of the excessiveness of a verdict in such case with great reluctance. The question of damages for a tort especially in a case of libel or slander is peculiarly within the province of the jury, and unless the damages are so unconscionable as to impress the court with its injustice, and thereby to induce the court to believe the jury were actuated by prejudice, partiality, or corruption, it rarely interferes with the verdict.'". (Emphasis supplied.)

In the present case the evidence shows that the advertisement in question was first written by a professional organizer of drives, and rewritten, or "revved up" to make it more "appealing." The Times in its own files had articles already published which would have demonstrated the falsity of the allegations in the advertisement. Upon demand by the Governor of Alabama, The Times published a retraction of the advertisement insofar as the Governor of Alabama was concerned. Upon receipt of the letter from the plaintiff demanding a retraction of the allegations in the advertisement, The Times had investigations made by a staff corespondent, and by its "string" correspondent. Both made a report demonstrating the falsity of the allegations. Even in the face of these reports, The Times adamantly refused to right the wrong it knew it had done the plaintiff. In the trial below none of the defendants questioned the falsity of the allegations in the advertisement.

On the other hand, during his testimony it was the contention of the Secretary of The Times that the advertisement was "substantially correct." In the face of this cavalier ignoring of the falsity of the advertisement, the jury could not have but been impressed with the bad faith of The Times, and its maliciousness inferable therefrom.

While in the Johnson Publishing Co. case, supra, the damages were reduced by was of requiring a remittitur, such reduction was on the basis that there was some element of truth in part of the alleged libelous statement. No such reason to mitigate the damages is present in this case.

It is common knowledge that as of today the dollar is worth only 50 cents or less of its former value.

The Times retracted the advertisement as to Governor Patterson, but ignored this plaintiff's demand for retraction. The matter contained in the advertisement was equally false as to both parties.

The Times could not justify its nonretraction as to this plaintiff by fallaciously asserting that the advertisement was substantially true, and further, that the advertisement as presented to The Times bore the names of endorsers whose reputation for truth it considered good.

The irresponsibility of these endorsers in attaching their names to this false and malicious advertisement cannot shield The Times from its irresponsibility in printing the advertisement and scattering it to the four winds.

[46] All in all we do not feel justified in mitigating the damages awarded by the jury, and approved by the trial judge below, by its judgment on the motion for a new trial, with the favorable presumption which attends the correctness of the verdict of the jury where the trial judge refuses to grant a new trial. Housing Authority of City of Decatur v. Decatur Land Co., 258 Ala. 607, 64 So.2d 594.

In our considerations we have examined the case of New York Times Company v. Conner, (5CCA) 291 F.2d 492 (1961), wherein the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, relying exclusively upon Age Herald Publishing Co. v. Huddleston, 207 Ala. 40, 92 So. 193, 37 A.L.R. 898, held that no cause of action for libel arose in Alabama where the alleged libel appeared in a newspaper primarily in New York.

This case overlooks, or ignores, the decisions of this court in Johnson Publishing Co. v. Davis, 271 Ala. 474, 124 So.2d 441, wherein this court rejected the argument that the whole process of writing, editing, printing, transportation and distribution of a magazine should be regarded as one libel, and the locus of such libel was the place of primary publication. This court further, with crystal clarity, held that Age Herald Publishing Co. v. Huddleston, supra, concerned a venue statute, and that venue statutes do not apply to foreign corporations not qualified to do business in Alabama.

The statement of Alabama law in the Conner case, supra, is erroneous in light of our enunciation of what is the law of Alabama as set forth in the Johnson Publishing Company case, supra. This erroneous premise, as we interpret the Conner case, renders the opinion faulty, and of no persuasive authority in our present consideration.

"The laws of the several states, except where the Constitution or treaties of the United States or Acts of Congress otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in civil actions in the courts of the United States, in cases where they apply." Sec. 1652, Title 28, U.S.C.A., 62 Stat. 944.

It is our conclusion that the judgment below is due to be affirmed, and it is so ordered.

Affirmed.

Livingston, C. J., and Simpson and Merrill, JJ., concur.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962August Opinion of the Supreme Court of Alabama (30,) (1962) - New York Times Company V. Sullivan, Advertising, Circulation, Substituted Service, General Appearance By The Times