West v. Media General Operations, Inc., 1:00-CV-184.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Eastern District of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtEdgar
Citation250 F.Supp.2d 923
PartiesCharmaine WEST and First Alternative Probation and Counseling, Inc., Plaintiffs, v. MEDIA GENERAL OPERATIONS, INC., and Media General Operations, Inc. d/b/a WDEF-TV 12, Defendants.
Docket NumberNo. 1:00-CV-184.,1:00-CV-184.
Decision Date14 March 2002

Anita B. Hardeman, Harry F. Burnette, Burnette, Dobson & Hardeman, Chattanooga, TN, for plaintiffs.

Robert E. Coopper, Jr., Samuel L. Felker, Donald L. Zachary, Alison S. Fowler, Rebecca S. Kell, Bass, Berry & Sims, Nashville, TN, for defendant.

MEMORANDUM

EDGAR, Chief Judge.

I.

Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law [Court File No. 165]

This case is now before the Court on defendant Media General's post-trial motion [Court File No. 165] for judgment as a matter of law made pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b). In this defamation case, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff Charmaine West ("West") in the sum of $190,000, and in favor of plaintiff First Alternative Probation and Counseling, Inc. ("FAPC") in the amount of $120,000. Defendant Media General contends it is entitled to a verdict as a matter of law since, says Media General, the plaintiffs failed to prove defamation.

In reviewing the FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b) motion, this Court is required to follow Tennessee law. A federal court sitting in diversity under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 must apply the standard for judgments as a matter of law of the state whose substantive law governs. Webster v. Edward D. Jones & Co., LP., 197 F.3d 815, 818 (6th Cir.1999); Morales v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 151 F.3d 500, 506 (6th Cir.1998); Tschira v. Willingham, 135 F.3d 1077, 1087 (6th Cir.1998); TGC Corp. v. HTM Sports, B.V., 896 F.Supp. 751, 753 (E.D.Tenn.1995).

When deciding the Rule 50(b) motion, Tennessee law requires that this Court:

take the strongest legitimate view of the evidence in favor of the opponent of the motion, allow all reasonable inferences in his or her favor, discard all countervailing evidence, and deny the motion where there is any doubt as to the conclusions to be drawn from the whole evidence. A verdict should not be directed during, or after, trial except where a reasonable mind could draw but one conclusion.

Holmes v. Wilson, 551 S.W.2d 682, 685 (Tenn.1977); see also Tschira, 135 F.3d at 1087; Grantham and Mann v. American Safety Products, 831 F.2d 596, 602 (6th Cir.1987); Arms v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 731 F.2d 1245, 1248-49 (6th Cir. 1984); Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d 587, 590 (Tenn.1994).

Media General demonstrates considerable chutzpah in even making the argument that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Suffice it to say that there was much evidence that Media General defamed the plaintiffs. Most certainly, there was enough evidence to DENY this Rule 50(b) motion. This Court has taken the strongest legitimate view of the evidence in favor of the plaintiffs, allowing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs' favor and discarding all countervailing evidence. Defendant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b) on the defamation claims.

Defendant asserts that whether a statement is capable of being understood as defamatory is initially a question of law for the Court to decide. Memphis Publishing Co. v. Nichols, 569 S.W.2d 412, 419 (Tenn.1978). Although this is a correct statement of Tennessee law, it does not entitle the defendant to any relief under Rule 50(b). The Court concludes as a matter of law that the disputed statements published by the defendant are capable of being understood as defamatory by objectively reasonable persons who viewed the television broadcasts.

Defendant also contends that because the Court purportedly did not require the plaintiffs to more precisely identify the language from the television broadcasts that is alleged to be defamatory, the Court did not exercise its responsibility to determine whether specific statements are capable of being understood as defamatory. This argument fails. Plaintiffs did identify and prove specific defamatory statements in their complaint, in the final pretrial order, and at trial. The Court did review the statements and determined that they were capable of being defamatory before the Court submitted the case to the jury. The defamatory statements must be considered within the context of the "Probation For Sale" television series as a whole, including both the audio and visual presentations and their combined effect. This matter is discussed in more depth infra with regard to the defendant's motion for new trial brought under FED. R. CIV. P. 59.

Accordingly, the defendant's Rule 50(b) motion will be DENIED. A separate order will enter.

II.

Defendant's Motion for New Trial or, in the Alternative, a Remittitur [Court File No. 167]

Also before the Court is the defendant's motion [Court File No. 167] for a new trial under FED. R. CIV. P. 59, or, in the alternative, remittitur. Generally, the standard of review used in deciding a Rule 59 motion in diversity cases is a federal one.1 Conte v. General Housewares Corp., 215 F.3d 628, 637 (6th Cir. 2000); Webster, 197 F.3d at 818; Arms, 731 F.2d at 1248 n. 2. There are three circumstances which may warrant a new trial under Rule 59: (1) the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence; (2) the damages award is excessive; or (3) the trial was influenced by bias, prejudice, or other unfairness to the moving party. Conte, 215 F.3d at 637-38; Holmes v. City ofMassillon, Ohio, 78 F.3d 1041, 1045^6 (6th Cir.1996). When ruling on a motion for new trial claiming that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the district court may compare the opposing proofs and weigh the evidence. While a district judge has a duty to intervene in appropriate cases, a jury's verdict should be accepted and not disturbed if it is a verdict which could reasonably have been reached. Conte, 215 F.3d at 637-38; Webster, 197 F.3d at 818; Tobin v. Astra Pharm. Prod., 993 F.2d 528, 541 (6th Cir. 1993); Porter v. Lima Memorial Hosp., 995 F.2d 629, 635 (6th Cir.1993); Portage II v. Bryant Petroleum Corp., 899 F.2d 1514, 1523-24 (6th Cir.1990). A jury verdict is not considered to be unreasonable simply because different inferences could have been drawn from the evidence or because other results are more reasonable. Strickland v. Owens Coming, 142 F.3d 353, 357 (6th Cir.1998); Porter, 995 F.2d at 635; Woodbridge v. Dahlberg, 954 F.2d 1231, 1234 (6th Cir.1992); J.C. Wyckoff & Assoc. v. Standard Fire Ins. Co., 936 F.2d 1474, 1487 (6th Cir.1991).

There is no justification for granting a new trial or a remittitur. The jury's verdicts are not against the weight of the evidence. The damage awards are not by any means excessive. The Court is not aware of any evidentiary or other ruling which was made in error.

A. Liability For Defamation

Defendant argues that the Court erred by not requiring the plaintiffs to identify, prior to trial, the precise statements alleged to be defamatory. Defendant complains it was unable to prepare adequately a "targeted defense" because the plaintiffs only identified general topics rather than exact statements. Moreover, the defendant contends it was only during closing arguments to the jury at the conclusion of the trial that the plaintiffs identified the exact statements alleged to be defamatory.

This argument fails. The record shows the defendant had sufficient notice prior to trial about the plaintiffs' specific defamation claims, and the defendant had every fair, reasonable opportunity to prepare for trial and defend itself. The plaintiffs' complaint filed on May 3, 2000, identified several alleged defamatory statements with sufficient specificity to put the defendant on fair notice as to the nature and substance of the defamation claims. The final pretrial order entered on November 8, 2001 [Court File No. 133, pp. 4-5], lists the topics and statements alleged to be defamatory.

This same subject was discussed and resolved at the final pretrial conference held on November 7, 2001. [Transcript of Final Pretrial Conference, pp. 63-70]. At the final pretrial conference, the Court heard oral argument on the defendant's motion in limine to compel the plaintiffs to identify each precise statement they contend is defamatory or places Charmaine West in a false light. [Court File No. 97]. The Court denied the defendant's motion in limine and explained that this suit involves television broadcasts which must be viewed as a whole, with all alleged defamatory statements being considered in the totality of the audio and visual presentation. The audio portion of the television broadcasts along with the photography and editing effects must be considered together in combination when determining whether statements, in the context actually published and presented to the public, are defamatory. The final pretrial order listed the defamatory topics and statements that are in dispute.

Defendant strives to argue its way around the final pretrial order. But the record shows that the defendant's counsel advised the Court at the final pretrial conference that the final pretrial order was sufficient with regard to specifying the defamatory statements. During the final pretrial conference, the defendant's lead trial counsel, Donald Zachary, reviewed and discussed the final pretrial order wherein the plaintiffs listed the alleged defamatory statements. With direct reference to the listing of the alleged defamatory statements in the final pretrial order, Mr. Zachary told this Court: "If these are, if these are the elements that they're going to prove then that probably is sufficient, Your Honor." Mr. Zachary further said: "If it's limited to that, then we're happy with that." [Transcript of Final Pretrial Conference, p. 68]. The Court took Mr. Zachary at...

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