Greenmoss Builders, Inc. v. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc.

Decision Date15 April 1983
Docket NumberNo. 173-81,173-81
Citation143 Vt. 66,461 A.2d 414
CourtVermont Supreme Court
Parties, 9 Media L. Rep. 1902 GREENMOSS BUILDERS, INC. v. DUN & BRADSTREET, INC.

Villa & Heilmann, Burlington, for plaintiff-appellant.

Young & Monte, Northfield, for defendant-appellee.


HILL, Justice.

Plaintiff, a residential and commercial building contractor, brought this defamation action against defendant as a result of an erroneous credit report issued to defendant's subscribers (plaintiff's creditors). The credit report alleged that plaintiff had filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy and, in addition, grossly misrepresented plaintiff's assets and liabilities. The false nature of the report's allegations has never been disputed.

In its complaint, plaintiff asserted that the consequences of defendant's report, which it insisted was published with reckless disregard for truth and accuracy, were a damaged business reputation, loss of company profits, and loss of money expended to correct the error. In response, defendant claimed both a constitutional and common law qualified privilege against defamation actions, and on that basis contended that since its report was published in good faith, it could not be held liable.

After a trial by jury, a verdict was returned in favor of plaintiff for $50,000 in compensatory or actual damages, and $300,000 in punitive damages. Thereafter, defendant filed timely motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, V.R.C.P. 50, and for new trial, V.R.C.P. 59, on the issues of liability and damages. The trial court, persuaded that the evidence was sufficient as a matter of law to create issues of fact for the jury as to both liability and damages, denied defendant's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Upon reviewing its jury instructions, however, the trial court concluded that it had incorrectly charged those standards of liability enunciated in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974), and granted defendant's motions for new trial on all issues.

This action is before us pursuant to an interlocutory order by the Washington Superior Court, V.R.A.P. 5(b)(1), certifying five questions of law for our resolution. (1) Did the trial court err in granting defendant's motion for a new trial on all issues? (2) If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, should the court have entered judgment on the verdict? (3) If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, should the court have ordered a new trial on: (a) damages only? (b) compensatory damages only? (c) punitive damages only? (4) Did the court err in denying all motions of the defendant for judgment notwithstanding the verdict? (5) If the answer to the fourth question is in the affirmative, should the court have: (a) granted defendant's motion to enter judgment for the defendant on the issue of punitive damages, notwithstanding the verdict? (b) granted the motion of the defendant for judgment on the issue of compensatory damages, notwithstanding the verdict? (c) granted judgment for the defendant on all issues? In light of our disposition of the first four questions, we need not address the fifth question.

We begin with a review of the record. Defendant operates a business in which factual and financial reports about individual business enterprises are issued exclusively to subscribers of defendant's service. These subscribers, usually creditors of the reported enterprises, may contract for "continuous service reports" which enable them to receive all report updates about a particular business over a year's time from the subscriber's initial inquiry. The reports are based on information solicited from the business itself, the business' banking and credit sources, from trade suppliers, and from public records such as annual reports filed with the Secretary of State and reports of bankruptcy petitions.

On or about July 26, 1976, plaintiff's president met with a representative of its principal creditor, a bank, to discuss the possibility of future financing. During the meeting, the bank's representative informed plaintiff's president that he had just received a credit report issued by defendant indicating that plaintiff had recently filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy. Plaintiff's president testified that he was both shocked and confused when confronted with the report, since plaintiff had never filed such a petition and, at the time the report was published, plaintiff's business was steadily expanding. In fact, plaintiff's president later testified that prior to the issuance of the credit report, plaintiff had never suffered a major economic reversal and its financial condition was sound. Nevertheless, despite the bank representative's trial testimony that he never really believed the report, the bank put off any future consideration of credit to plaintiff until the discrepancy was cleared up. The bank later terminated plaintiff's credit allegedly for reasons unrelated to the report.

Plaintiff's president immediately contacted defendant's regional office in Manchester, New Hampshire. He explained the error to defendant's regional supervisor and requested, in addition to an immediate correction, a list of those creditors who had received the false reports in order that they might be reassured of plaintiff's solvency. Defendant's representative stated that the matter would be looked into, but refused to divulge to plaintiff's president the names of the creditors who had received the report.

The basis of the error was established at trial: a former employee of plaintiff, and not plaintiff, had filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy. Defendant's employee, a seventeen year old high school student, paid $200 annually to review Vermont's bankruptcy petitions, had inadvertently attributed the former employee's bankruptcy petition to plaintiff itself, and reported the information as such to defendant. A representative of defendant testified that prior to the issuance of a credit report indicating a bankrupt business, it was defendant's routine practice first to check the report's accuracy with the business itself. No prepublication verification was ever attempted in the present case.

On or about August 3, 1976, having satisfied itself that its credit report on plaintiff was wrong, defendant issued a corrective notice to the five subscribers who had received the initial report. In substance, the corrective notice stated that it was a former employee of plaintiff, not plaintiff itself, who had filed the petition in bankruptcy, and that plaintiff "continued in business as usual." Plaintiff informed defendant that it was dissatisfied with the corrective notice, since it implied that the initial mistake was attributable to plaintiff, not defendant. Plaintiff again demanded a list of subscribers who had seen the report, but its request was once again denied.

Thereafter, plaintiff refused to provide defendant with any further financial data, and requested that defendant inform anyone seeking such data that they were being withheld pending the outcome of plaintiff's defamation action against defendant. Instead, defendant issued plaintiff a "blank rating," indicating that plaintiff's circumstances were "difficult to classify" within defendant's rating system, and such information was distributed to those creditors who requested a current indication of plaintiff's financial status. A short while later, plaintiff commenced its defamation action.


In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), the United States Supreme Court held that a "public official" was prohibited "from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he [or she] proves that the statement was made with 'actual malice,'--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Id. at 279-80, 84 S.Ct. at 725-26; Burns v. Times Argus Association, 139 Vt. 381, 384, 430 A.2d 773, 775 (1981). Three years later, the media protection established in New York Times was extended to cover defamatory falsehoods published about "public figures." Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 155, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 1991, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967). In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., supra, the Supreme Court, in the last major pronunciation of protections afforded the media in defamation actions, held that "so long as they do not impose liability without fault, the States may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual." Id. 418 U.S. at 347, 94 S.Ct. at 3010 (emphasis added). Although Gertz permitted a "private individual" to recover actual damages, presumed or punitive damages were not permitted absent proof of the New York Times standard "of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth." Id. 418 U.S. at 348, 94 S.Ct. at 3011.

The critical issue underlying the certified questions presented, a matter of first impression for this Court, is whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution require that the qualified protections afforded the media in "private" defamation actions, as set forth in Gertz, be extended to actions involving nonmedia defendants. Although the issue has never been decided by the United States Supreme Court, see Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 133 n. 16, 99 S.Ct. 2675, 2687 n. 16, 61 L.Ed.2d 411 (1979), it has been addressed in a number of state courts. See, e.g., Denny v. Mertz, 106 Wis.2d 636, 318 N.W.2d 141 (1982); Rowe v. Metz, 195 Colo. 424, 579 P.2d 83 (1978); Harley-Davidson Motorsports, Inc. v. Markley, 279 Or. 361, 568 P.2d 1359 (1977); Jacron Sales Co. v. Sindorf, 276 Md. 580, 350 A.2d 688 (1976). Since the basis of the trial court's decision to grant...

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