A sharply divided New York appeals court Thursday reduced by more than half a $1.3 million libel verdict against the Nation of Islam‘s newspaper, saying although the paper callously doctored a photo to depict a Harlem woman as a prison inmate, it did not deliberately inflict harm on her.
The majority of the Appellate Division, 1st Department, said that since the newspaper was not motivated by a desire to injure the woman, it could not be punished with punitive damages that totaled $700,000.
However, the majority, in an opinion by Justice Eugene Nardelli, repeatedly attacked the paper’s actions, calling them “reprehensible” and “irresponsible,” and saying the court was “constrained” to reduce the award because New York law requires such a high standard for punitive damages in defamation cases.
In a dissenting opinion, two justices said the paper’s willingness to depict the woman as a convict without making “even the slightest effort” to determine if its representation was accurate warranted punitive damages. The dissent in Morsette v. The Final Call, 1761, also cited the paper’s insistence, even at oral appellate arguments, that its photo illustration was not defamatory.
The weekly newspaper, called The Final Call, randomly selected a photo of Tatia Morsette from its archives for a 1997 front-page story on women in prison, titled, “Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis.” Morsette, a successful entertainment promoter who has never been to prison, appeared on the cover holding her son, along with two other women. On an inside page, she appeared again, but her picture was altered to make it seem as if she was wearing prison attire.
A photographer had taken Morsette’s photo in 1996 at an unrelated event and given it to the paper. The editor of the paper, James Muhammad, knew nothing about the woman, nor did he try to ascertain her background or seek consent from her before authorizing the use of her picture.
The Final Call never apologized to Morsette, but it did publish what the majority called an “uninspired” clarification, which told readers that the photo illustration was not intended to give the impression that the women were mothers or incarcerated. The clarification referred to the wrong issue of the publication in describing the photos.
Morsette, who said her family and some clients saw the article, causing her to become embarrassed and depressed and gain 50 pounds, sued The Final Call for libel. She alleged that the paper had a national circulation of 400,000.
After a jury trial before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Figueroa, Morsette was awarded $640,000 in compensatory damages and $700,000 in punitive damages.
On appeal, the paper challenged Figueroa’s evidentiary rulings and jury instructions, and argued that neither compensatory nor punitive damages were warranted.
In partially vacating the verdict, the majority of the 1st Department found no fault with Figueroa, but said punitive damages could not be awarded because the paper did not intentionally inflict harm on Morsette.
“Indeed, it is precisely the randomness of defendant’s conduct and the fact that such conduct was not directed specifically at this plaintiff that requires us to vacate the punitive damages award,” wrote Nardelli.
The judge said even “actual malice,” the constitutional standard for an award of compensatory damages to a public figure in a defamation suit, according to New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, is insufficient by itself to justify punitive damages in New York (see Prozeralik v. Capital Cities Comms., Inc., 82 NY2d 466).
“Notwithstanding defendant’s reprehensible, irresponsible conduct,” Nardelli wrote, “there is no evidence … that the malice or ill will was directed specifically at plaintiff to support an award of punitive damages.”
The majority also reduced Morsette’s compensatory damages to $440,000, saying her award for future emotional distress deviated from reasonable standards.
Justice George D. Marlow, in a dissenting opinion, said the entire $1.3 million award should be upheld.
“Utterly without the slightest concern for plaintiff’s right to her flawless reputation, defendant falsely labeled her a convicted criminal in prison,” he wrote. “I therefore … find that defendant did possess the requisite ‘mental state in relation to the plaintiff’ (see Prozeralik) to justify an award of punitive damages by its admitted and blatant disregard in failing to make even the slightest effort to ascertain whether its deliberately altered depiction of plaintiff was accurate.”
Alan J. Rich, who represented Morsette, said he was gratified that both the majority and the dissent found that The Final Call acted irresponsibly, but said he would consider an appeal to the Court of Appeals on the punitive damages.
“I think the dissent is saying that they were so reckless that it is the equivalent of direct intent,” Rich said.
Baree N. Hassett handled the trial and appeal with Rich.
Joseph Fleming, who represented The Final Call, could not be reached for comment.
Justices David B. Saxe and David Friedman concurred in the majority opinion. Justice Ernst H. Rosenberger joined in the dissent.