Defamatory Billboard Results in $236 Million Verdict
A New Hampshire jury has awarded three businessmen about $236 million as compensation for false statements displayed on an electronic billboard. The defamatory statements accused the businessmen of being drug dealers or extortionists.
Facts of the Case
Michael Gill, the owner of The Mortgage Specialists in Manchester, New Hampshire, maintains electronic billboards at his business locations. The billboards were presumably erected so that Gill could advertise his business, but Gill has a history of using them to speak his mind, often in ways that offend others.
Gill has used his billboards to make allegations of public corruption against lawyers, judges, and politicians. He regularly accuses New Hampshire’s senators of corruption and “criminal coverup.” Gill also lodges his complaints on a website that is open to “invited readers” only, and purchases radio time for a call-in show that he uses to advance his opinions.
Three individuals sued Gill for defamation because of factual assertions that he made on his billboards, in social media, and on the radio. Dick Anagnost, a real estate developer, Andy Crews, a car dealer, and William Greiner, a banker, sued Gill and his supporter, Aaron Day, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire.
The Manchester billboard displayed photographs of Anagnost and Crews while labeling them as “drug dealers.” Crews and Anagost had purchased a Manchester building and used it to house the New Hampshire Recovery Center, a nonprofit organization that offers support services to recovering addicts. Anagnost told the media that he was motivated by his own son’s addiction, an experience that left him “about as anti-drugs as you can get.”
The billboard also displayed a photograph of Greiner next to the word “Extortion.” In a related suit, a New Hampshire lawyer accused Gill of making a defamatory statement by placing the lawyer’s picture next to the word “Extortionist.” A judge refused to dismiss the lawyer’s defamation suit, ruling that Gill presented no evidence that the statement was factually truthful.
Law of Defamation
Defamation is the publication of a false statement that damages another person’s reputation. Defamation lawsuits are governed by state laws, although the First Amendment limits the ability to bring a successful defamation suit when the allegedly defamatory speech concerns a public official or an issue of public importance.
The expression of opinions is constitutionally protected, but the publication of untrue facts is not. When the defamed party is a public figure, the person who made the statement cannot be held liable for defamation unless that person knew that the statement was untrue or recklessly disregarded the truth. However, states are free to permit plaintiffs who are not public figures or involved in public controversies to recover damages when false statements were negligently made.
Truth is an absolute defense to defamation. A defendant who is sued for defamation will often try to prove that the statements were true or that the defendant reasonably believed they were true when they were made. It is then up to the jury to determine the statement’s veracity.
Verdict Against Gill
Gill accused the plaintiffs of committing crimes (drug dealing or extortion). Those are factual assertions, not matters of opinion, and most states regard untrue accusations of criminal activity as defamatory without regard to their impact on reputation. Because Gill offered no evidence in support of his assertion that his statements were true, the judge ruled that Gill’s statements were defamatory as a matter of law.
The case went to trial to determine the plaintiffs’ damages. Gill represented himself, but he declared the trial a “criminal enterprise” and left before any evidence was presented. That turned out to be a bad strategy, as the jury returned a verdict against him of $236 million. The plaintiffs’ attorney told the media that he believes he won the largest injury verdict in the history of New Hampshire.
Two of the plaintiffs presented evidence that they suffered financial losses, including lost business opportunities, because of the defamatory statements. In addition to compensation for those losses and for emotional distress, the verdict included $150 million in punitive damages ($50 million for each plaintiff).
In a traditional trial, a judge might reduce the verdict on the ground that it is excessive. Judges usually take that action only when an appropriate motion is filed, and it isn’t clear that Gill has sufficient faith in the judicial system to appear in court again. In any event, it seems unlikely that Gill’s run for public office will be aided by publicity surrounding the trial.