Last Update: 11/16/16
Some jury verdicts in defamation cases can send a message. This is especially true in those cases where the court allows the jury to assess a money award that does more than compensate the victim. When a jury is authorized to consider more than just compensation for a victim the jury is instructed to consider whether or not “punitive damages” are appropriate.
In Florida, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer in order to deter the behavior from happening again and to dissuade others who might consider engaging in the same type of behavior.
Because the focus is not on compensating an injury victim for their particular harm, but instead the focus is on the wrongdoer and what they did (or failed to do), punitive damages can be awarded without any evidence of specific damages.
If these damages are awarded in a Florida defamation lawsuit, it it because the act or behavior that caused the harm was intentional.
What Is The Definition of Harm?
According to case law, harm that is caused by a defamatory communication is defined to include humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, loss of reputation and the indifference to someone’s rights and feelings.
When Can Punitive Damages Be Awarded in a Florida Defamation Case?
If a plaintiff can show that the defamation, or the harmful communication, was made with malice, or ill will, toward him (or her), then punitive damages can be awarded to the victim.
Which begs the question; what is malice?
Malice is a legal element: it’s actual facts showing that the defendant knew that the statements were false and published them (said them or wrote them) carelessly, recklessly or deliberately intending and wanting them to harm the plaintiff.
Malice can also be shown if the defendant acted in bad faith, with ill will and with spite towards the victim’s rights and feelings.
In a defamation case, the defendant doesn’t have to prove “they didn’t mean it” when malice is alleged. It is the burden of the plaintiff to provide admissible evidence that shows there was express malice on the part of the defendant, not just implied from the circumstances.
The Florida Supreme Court has issued instructions that are to be given to juries in these type of cases. Juries are to be instructed that:
“Punitive damages are warranted if you find by the greater weight of the evidence that (defendant’s) primary purpose in making the statement was to indulge ill will, hostility, and an intent to harm (claimant).” (Jury Instruction 405.10, private concern).
Can Punitive Damages Be Awarded For Defamation If An Employer Bad-Mouths An Employee Who Has Quit their Job?
In the case of Knepper v. Genstar Corp., 537 So. 2d 619 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1988), R.O. Knepper and David Knepper were plaintiffs who sued for defamation of character damages based upon statements made by people who worked for one of three companies (Genstar, Nitrochem, and Nitrochem Energy) as either their agents or outright employees. These workers had allegedly bad mouthed the two men to their employer and the lawsuit was based upon allegations of defamation of character based upon slander.
R.O. Knepper and David Knepper were father and son. R.O. Knepper had worked in the explosives industry for over 25 years. His job experience included selling explosives and using them on-site. Over those 25+ years, he had built up quite a following and had a big client list. His son, David, had followed in his footsteps working with him in selling and operating explosives.
For many years, R.O. Knepper worked for Atlas Powder Company. However, when a new company came to town, Nitrochem, he decided to switch employers. Both Mr. Knepper and his son David went to work for the new company, Nitrochem.
Father and son worked there for a year and a half. Then they quit. They went back to Atlas Powder Company. This hurt Nitrochem; its business suffered a lot.
Soon, there were conversations between executives at Nitrochem and executives at Atlas Powder. Suddenly, Atlas Powder people were hearing bad things about the Kneppers — statements were made to them that R.O. Knepper and his son David had vandalized equipment at Nitrochem.
Word got back to the Kneppers about what was being said — that they were vandals — and they filed a lawsuit.
No settlement was reached, and the case went to the jury. Father and son won.
The jury came back in favor of the Kneppers: both father and son were awarded significant punitive damages to be paid by Nitrochem and related entities Genstar and Nitrochem Energy. Malice was found on the part of the Nitrochem folk talking about the Kneppers to the Atlas Powder folk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were awarded to the two men by the jury.
It didn’t end there, however.
The companies appealed, and the appeals court granted a new trial on the defamation damages, finding that during the trial there had been “… an inappropriate positive image of the Kneppers and an equally inappropriate negative image of the defendants.” The appeals court also ruled that the statements made between the employees of Atlas Power and Nitrochem were not protected by privilege as a matter of law, and returned the case to the trial court with directions on how the jury should be instructed.
At this point, the parties were left to either expend time and money going through a second trial process or negotiating a resolution at the settlement table.
What Should You Do?
A good piece of advice if you have been harmed by a defamatory communication and you believe it was made with malicious intent, is to speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer to learn about some of the issues that can arise with a punitive damages claim, including the pleading requirements for making such a claim and the amount of damages that may be recoverable. Most personal injury lawyers, like Alan Sackrin, will offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in person) to answer your questions.
- What is defamation per se?
- What Damages Are Recoverable In A Defamation of Character Claim?
- Defamation Per Se: When Libel or Slander Is So Bad, Do You Need Evidence of Damages Before Punitive Damages Can Be Awarded?
Do you have questions or comments? Then please feel free to send Alan an email or call him now at (954) 458-8655.
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