by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The News & Observer‘s defamation of an SBI analyst might not turn out to be as costly as the newspaper once feared. A unanimous N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that the case should go back to a trial court for another hearing on punitive damages.
A jury awarded $6 million to firearms analyst Beth Desmond in 2016. Jurors agreed that the N&O and reporter Mandy Locke had defamed Desmond in a series of articles.
Supreme Court justices have affirmed the verdict. But justices reversed earlier court rulings upholding the size of punitive damages in the case.
Justice Anita Earls explained in the court’s opinion why the trial judge made a mistake when instructing the jury. The judge should have required jurors to have made findings about potential aggravating factors in the case: fraud, malice, or “willful or wanton conduct.”
Here, over defendants’ objection, the trial court did not instruct the jury that it was required to find one of the statutory aggravating factors under N.C.G.S. § 1D-15 before awarding punitive damages. The trial court, in reliance on the pattern jury instructions, reasoned that a finding of actual malice in the liability stage automatically allowed for an award of punitive damages and obviated any need for the jury to find one of the statutory aggravating factors. The Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that “the trial court instructed in accord with the pattern jury instructions,” which are “the preferred method of jury instruction[.]” We conclude that the pattern jury instructions utilized in this case do not accurately reflect the law regarding punitive damages and that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that it was required to find one of the statutory aggravating factors before awarding punitive damages.
The Supreme Court’s decision means the N&O and Locke will face a new trial on the issue of “punitive damages only.”