Sprouse v. Clay Communication, Inc.

Decision Date04 February 1975
Docket NumberNo. 13463,13463
Citation158 W.Va. 427,211 S.E.2d 674
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties, 95 A.L.R.3d 622, 1 Media L. Rep. 1695 James M. SPROUSE v. CLAY COMMUNICATION, INC.

Syllabus by the Court

1. A candidate for political office is governed by the same rules with regard to recovery for libel as a public official and can sustain an action for libel only if he can prove that: (1) the alleged libelous statements were false or misleading; (2) the statements tended to defame the plaintiff and reflect shame, contumely, and disgrace upon him; (3) the statements were published with knowledge at the time of publication that they were false or misleading or were published with a reckless and willful disregard of truth; and, (4) the publisher intended to injure the plaintiff through the knowing or reckless publication of the alleged libelous material.

2. Where oversized headlines are published which reasonably lead the average reader to an entirely different conclusion than the facts recited in the body of the story, and where the plaintiff can demonstrate that it was the intent of the publisher to use such misleading headlines to create a false impression on the normal reader, the headlines may be considered separately with regard to whether a known falsehood was published.

3. Where a candidate for public office who is plaintiff in a libel action can demonstrate an overall plan or scheme, the object of which was to injure plaintiff through the publication of defamatory material, a deviation between the clear purport of defamatory headlines and the remainder of the news stories reciting facts not defamatory in nature, is evidence of reckless and willful disregard for truth which may be considered along with other evidence on the question of actual malice by the jury, and may be considered by an appellate court in reviewing a jury judgment under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

4. In cases involving alleged libel of a candidate for public office by a newspaper where the protections afforded to the newspaper by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment must be jealously guarded, an award of punitive damages will be sustained on appeal only when it is determined that the jury's award of actual damages is inadequate to dissuade newspapers similarly situated from engaging in like conduct in the future.

5. In all future cases the dismissal of an action under Rule 12(b)(6) W.Va. RCP for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted shall be a bar to the prosecution of a new action grounded in substantially the same set of facts, unless the lower court in the first action specifically dismissed without prejudice; however, in the case Sub judice a former dismissal in Kanawha County under Rule 12(b)(6) did not operate as a bar to a subsequent action in Fayette County because the record clearly reveals that the action, although dismissed, was not dismissed on the merits, showing that the court intended to dismiss only the complaint.

6. Venue for alleged libel against a domestic corporation is properly laid in any county in which the libel was published regardless of the residence of the defendant and this rule is not changed by W.Va.Code, 59--3--1 (1967).

7. Where a jury instruction is improperly refused, and where it further appears to the appellate court that the case was tried on the correct theory and that the substance of the refused instruction was adequately covered in other instructions, and where it further conclusively appears to the appellate court that the outcome of the case would not have been affected by the giving of the refused instruction, the error is harmless and the case will not be reversed for refusal to give that instruction alone.

8. As a general rule a newspaper is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment when it publishes in good faith the statements of candidates for office about their opponents, and in this regard a newspaper is not required to make an independent investigation of the truth of such assertions by opposition leaders; however, when it conclusively appears from the evidence that the newspaper published the statements of an opposition political leader as part of an overall plan or scheme to injure a political candidate, knowing that the quoted statements were false or misleading, and when it further appears that the newspaper acted independently by publishing such statement by an opposition leader under a headline libelous Per se authored by the defendant newspaper, the jury may infer that the statement by the opposition leader was published with actual malice, in which case the First Amendment will not shield the defendant newspaper.

Jackson, Kelly, Holt & O'Farrell, F. Paul Chambers, Robert K. Kelly and Charles Q. Gage, Charleston, T. E. Myles, Fayetteville, for appellant.

Gilbert S. Bachmann, Wheeling, Arthur B. Hanson and W. Frank Stickle, Jr., Washington, D.C., amicus curiae for American Newspaper Publishers Assoc.

Rudolph L. DiTrapano, DiTrapano, Mitchell, Lawson & Field, Charleston, Abbot & Jesser, W. Robert Abbot and Fred A. Jesser, III, Fayetteville, for appellee.

Stanley E. Preiser, Charleston, Robert T. Goldenberg, Parkersburg, amicus curiae for W. Va. Trial Lawyers.

NEELY, Justice:

In the fall of 1968 James M. Sprouse was a practicing attorney in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Democratic Party candidate for Governor of the State of West Virginia. Approximately two weeks before the November election the Charleston Daily Mail published a series of articles implying that James M. Sprouse had engaged in real estate transactions in Pendleton County, West Virginia, of such a nature as to cast aspersions upon Sprouse's integrity. The articles implied that enormous profits would injure to Sprouse's benefit as a result of 'inside' information which Sprouse acquired through his Democratic Party affiliation concerning plans of the United States Government to establish a national park at Seneca Rocks in Pendleton County. A complete text of the articles in question is reproduced in the appendix to this opinion and it is suggested that the articles be read in their entirety at this point in order fully to understand the application of the intricate law of libel to the facts of this case.

The plaintiff, James M. Sprouse, recovered a jury award in the Circuit Court of Fayette County for $250,000 actual damages and $500,000 punitive damages against Clay Communication, Inc., owner of the Charleston Daily Mail, a newspaper of general circulation in numerous West Virginia counties. The defendant, Clay, strenuously argued that under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964) and its progeny, the defendant is not liable for the statements made about Sprouse even though they were false because Sprouse did not prove actual malice, as that term is judicially defined in the law of libel by New York Times.

This appeal presents a question of first impression in the United States with regard to the law of libel in light of New York Times v. Sullivan, Supra. The basic issue concerns whether evidence indicating that a newspaper foreswore its role as an impartial reporter of facts and joined with political partisans in an overall plan or scheme to discredit the character of a political candidate is relevant in determining whether the newspaper acted in reckless and willful disregard of the truth when it published grossly exaggerated, defamatory headlines which were unsupported by the factual recitations in the body of the story. This Court holds that once an overall plan or scheme to injure has been established, an unreasonable deviation between headlines and the remainder of the presentation is in and of itself evidence of actual malice, which, along with other evidence, supports a jury verdict for libel.

In addition to defendant's First Amendment defenses including an allegation that the damages are excessive, defendant also assigns myriad procedural errors among which the Court considers three to be fairly raised. The first assignment of error raises the question of whether venue was properly laid in Fayette County; the second assignment presents the question of whether a previous action begun in Kanawha County alleging the same set of facts and dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) W.Va. RCP was an effective bar to the present action in Fayette County; and, the third assignment of error concerns the failure of the trial court to give two jury instructions. 1 This Court finds that there was no reversible error committed, and further finds that although the $750,000 damage award is excessive, the plaintiff proved libel in this case. Accordingly, the judgment is reversed in part and affirmed in part and the case is remanded to the Circuit Court of Fayette County with instructions to enter judgment for $250,000 actual damages plus interest and costs and to strike as a matter of law the award of $500,000 punitive damages.

I

Under the mandate of New York Times v. Sullivan, Supra, it is incumbent upon an appellate court in determining the validity of a libel judgment, both to consider the law and to make an independent evaluation of the evidence to insure First Amendment protection to publishers. A candidate for political office is governed by the same stringent rules with regard to recovery as a public official. Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 401 U.S. 265, 91 S.Ct. 621, 28 L.Ed.2d 35 [158 W.Va. 433] (1970). In order for a political candidate to recover for libel against a newspaper it is necessary that the candidate prove actual malice, i.e., prove either that the newspaper published false or misleading defamatory statements knowing that they were false or misleading, or that the newspaper published...

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    ...statements tend to defame the plaintiff and "reflect shame, contumely, and disgrace" upon them. See Syl. Pt. 1, Sprouse v. Clay Commc'n, Inc., 158 W.Va. 427, 211 S.E.2d 674, 679 (1975). A statement may be described as defamatory "if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower ......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Thomas M. Cooley, Liberal Jurisprudence, and the Law of Libel, 1868-1884
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    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 4-01, September 1980
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