Goodwin v. Kennedy

Decision Date06 August 2001
Docket NumberNo. 3379.,3379.
Citation347 S.C. 30,552 S.E.2d 319
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
PartiesJohnny GOODWIN, Respondent, v. Reverend David KENNEDY, individually, and the Abbeville Chapter of C.A.F.E., a nonprofit corporation, Appellants.

Stephen John Henry, of Greenville, for appellants.

Thomas E. Hite, Jr., of Abbeville, for respondent.

CONNOR, J.:

In this defamation action, Johnny Goodwin sued David Kennedy and the Abbeville Chapter of C.A.F.E., a nonprofit corporation, for allegedly slanderous statements Kennedy made while Goodwin was an assistant principal of a local high school. The jury returned a verdict for Goodwin and awarded him actual damages of $5,000 and punitive damages of $25,000. Kennedy appeals.1 We affirm.

FACTS

This action arises out of statements Kennedy made about Goodwin on two occasions in February and March of 1997. At that time, Goodwin was an assistant principal at Abbeville High School, and his responsibilities included ninth-grade discipline.

The first incident occurred on February 6, 1997, when the parents of a suspended student brought their son to school following his three-day suspension for fighting. School policy required that a parent return with the student for re-enrollment. The parents were accompanied by Kennedy, the organizer of C.A.F.E.,2 and Kennedy's assistant, Carol Bishop.

Goodwin noted it was unusual for parents to bring someone else to a conference. However, he proceeded with the meeting in his office, during which Kennedy vigorously objected to the discipline given to the suspended student. Kennedy asked to hear from the teacher who recommended the suspension, and the teacher was brought into the conference as well. As the meeting became progressively heated, the principal of Abbeville High School, Mike Campbell, joined the meeting at Goodwin's request approximately thirty minutes after the meeting began. According to Goodwin, the meeting took on racial overtones when Kennedy repeatedly and vociferously questioned why the African-American student was suspended, while the Caucasian student purportedly involved in the incident was not.

As the meeting ended and after Campbell had asked Kennedy to leave, the parties walked out of Goodwin's office into the receptionist's area, where the secretary was sitting with her four-year-old grandson. Kennedy allegedly stated he was "not running" and then yelled, "I am not a house nigger. There is your house nigger right there [indicating Goodwin] and you are his master slave owner [indicating principal Campbell]." Kennedy repeated the words four or five times in a loud voice. Goodwin and Kennedy are both African-American. Campbell is Caucasian.

The second incident of alleged slander occurred on March 25, 1997. On that date, a full school board meeting was held at Calhoun Falls High School, at which the board was to consider a recommendation that the same suspended student be placed in an alternative school. When Goodwin exited the meeting room and walked into the hallway, Kennedy loudly stated in the presence of about fifteen persons present for the meeting, "There is the house nigger and the master slave owner is standing right down there."

Goodwin filed this defamation action against Kennedy and the Abbeville Chapter of C.A.F.E. on September 11, 1997, alleging Kennedy's statements caused him to suffer great pain and mental anguish, damaged his reputation, and brought his fitness to serve in his profession into question.

At trial, Kennedy admitted making the statements attributed to him at the meeting on March 25, 1997, and testified they were negative comments meaning Goodwin was a traitor and a puppet. The trial judge charged the jury on slander per se and slander per quod. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Goodwin for $5,000 actual damages and $25,000 punitive damages. Kennedy appeals.

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. Slander Per Se

Kennedy contends the trial judge erred in denying his motion for a directed verdict as to whether the alleged defamatory statements constituted slander per se, and in charging the jury on slander per se.3

Slander is actionable per se when the defendant's alleged defamatory statements charge the plaintiff with one of five types of acts or characteristics: (1) commission of a crime of moral turpitude; (2) contraction of a loathsome disease; (3) adultery; (4) unchastity; or (5) unfitness in one's business or profession. Holtzscheiter v. Thomson Newspapers, Inc., 332 S.C. 502, 511, 506 S.E.2d 497, 502 (1998). In a defamation action that is actionable per se, general damages are presumed and need not be proven by the plaintiff. Constant v. Spartanburg Steel Prods., Inc., 316 S.C. 86, 447 S.E.2d 194,cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1017, 115 S.Ct. 580, 130 L.Ed.2d 495 (1994).

In this case, Goodwin alleged Kennedy's statements were actionable per se because they imputed an unfitness in his profession when considered in the context in which they were spoken. At trial, Goodwin defined the comments as meaning that he was a traitor to his own race, and stated the remarks were evil, degrading, and "just plain embarrassing." Kennedy testified that he meant Goodwin was a puppet of the principal and a traitor to the African-American student who was disciplined. He conceded the term was "bad" and "negative." Kennedy also admitted his statements arose from his concern about Goodwin's actions as an assistant principal interfering with the African-American student's education. We also note the statements were both made in the course of Goodwin carrying out his responsibilities as an assistant principal.

Goodwin testified students did not respond as well to his discipline after the incidents. One student even told Goodwin he was "a disgrace to [his] race." Goodwin believed this comment was a direct result of Kennedy's public remarks. Goodwin felt Kennedy's comments affected his ability to discipline the students effectively. Goodwin testified that because of these continuing difficulties, he retired in June of 1998. He stated he could not think of anything worse than what Kennedy said to him in public.

The circuit court denied Kennedy's motion for a directed verdict, ruling that when viewed in the light most favorable to Goodwin, there was evidence that the statements were defamatory and that the statements charged Goodwin with unfitness in his profession. The court noted that both Goodwin and Kennedy had testified the words were intended to mean Goodwin was a traitor to his race regarding his actions in disciplining the students.

In ruling on a motion for directed verdict, the trial court is required to view the evidence and the inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion and to deny the motion where either the evidence yields more than one inference or its inference is in doubt. Strange v. South Carolina Dep't of Highways & Pub. Transp., 314 S.C. 427, 429-30, 445 S.E.2d 439, 440 (1994). "The trial court can only be reversed by this Court when there is no evidence to support the ruling below." Id. at 430, 445 S.E.2d at 440. "In essence, we must determine whether a verdict for a party opposing the motion would be reasonably possible under the facts as liberally construed in his favor." Bultman v. Barber, 277 S.C. 5, 7, 281 S.E.2d 791, 792 (1981).

We find the trial judge did not err in ruling that whether the statements were defamatory is a question for the jury as the finders of fact. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Kennedy, it is a reasonable inference that, under the circumstances in which Kennedy made the statements, the jury could find those statements defamatory.

Likewise, the question of whether the statements were actionable per se or not actionable per se was a matter for the jury to determine as the finders of fact. See Turner v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 165 S.C. 253, 261, 163 S.E. 796, 798-99 (1932) ("[T]he evidence adduced by the plaintiff in the case at bar required the submission to the jury of the question whether the language used by [the defendant] charged the plaintiff with the commission of such crime."). A reasonable inference arising from Goodwin's testimony is that Kennedy's comments were directed at Goodwin's alleged unfitness in his profession as an assistant school principal. Specifically, the jury could find Kennedy assailed Goodwin's integrity and decision-making ability when carrying out his responsibility to discipline all students, African-American and Caucasian, fairly. Another reasonable inference from Kennedy's comments is that he was attributing racism and bias to Goodwin in his dealings with the students in matters of discipline. It cannot be said that when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Goodwin, the jury could not have inferred that the statements attacked Goodwin's fitness to serve as an assistant principal.

Accordingly, we find no error in the trial judge's decision to deny Kennedy's motion for a directed verdict on the issue of whether Kennedy's statements were actionable per se.4 Consequently, we also reject Kennedy's assertion that the trial judge's charge to the jury on this issue was error.

II. Request to Charge on "Opinion"

Kennedy contends the trial judge committed reversible error by denying his written request to charge the jury that the "mere expression of opinion is not slander."

On appeal, Kennedy cites no South Carolina authority on point. However, we note that in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974), the United States Supreme Court remarked, "Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas. But there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact." Id. at 339-40, 94...

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