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Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc. v. Gunter

Supreme Court of Virginia

February 26, 1993, Decided

Record No. 921038



In this defamation case, a private individual seeks both presumed and punitive damages against a media defendant arising from the reporting of matters of public concern. The dispositive issue is whether  [**371]  there is sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict against the defendant.

E. Eugene Gunter filed a motion for judgment against Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc. (Shenandoah), alleging that Shenandoah printed two newspaper articles defaming him. The articles, written by Maggie Wolff Peterson, appeared in the Northern Virginia Daily. The subject of the first article was a police search of Gunter's law office. Acting pursuant to a search warrant, investigators Jay F. Merchant, L.W. Millholland, and David Sobonya searched Gunter's office for a file that they believed contained [***2]  evidence relating to a burglary.

The affidavit in support of the search warrant was made by Investigator Merchant, who stated that a woman named Ruth Maxwell had told him she had hired Robert Lee Edmonson to commit a residential burglary and steal certain photographs from that house. The affidavit also recounted Maxwell's statement that she had taken the photographs to Gunter's office and that Gunter had made a memorandum concerning their meeting. During their search of Gunter's office, the police found an empty file folder bearing Maxwell's name.

The newspaper article reporting this search bore a headline stating: "Lawyer's office searched for stolen items." The article reported that the police had searched Gunter's office for "items stolen in a December 1984 break-in of a Loudoun County home." The article also stated that the police did not find the contents of Ruth Maxwell's file, and that Gunter said he "does not know what happened to the file." The article also quoted Gunter as stating that Millholland had left the office "very upset because he didn't find what he was looking for."

The subject of the second article involved the preliminary hearing conducted in the burglary [***3]  prosecution of Robert Edmonson. The hearing was held before Judge Archibald M. Aiken, Jr. in the Loudoun County General District Court. In connection with this hearing, Gunter received a subpoena for his personal appearance, as well  [*323]  as a subpoena duces tecum to produce the Maxwell file. Gunter attended the hearing and brought the Maxwell file with him. Before Gunter was called to testify, Judge Aiken determined that there was sufficient evidence to certify the case to the grand jury. As a result, Gunter did not testify at the hearing, nor was he required to produce the file.

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245 Va. 320 *; 427 S.E.2d 370 **; 1993 Va. LEXIS 46 ***; 9 Va. Law Rep. 1010; 21 Media L. Rep. 1124


Prior History:  [***1]  FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF WINCHESTER. Carleton Penn, Judge Designate

Disposition: Reversed and final judgment.


actual malice, defamation, damages, stolen, Investigator, photographs, presumed, subpoena, searched

Torts, Defamation, Remedies, Damages, Civil Procedure, Jury Trials, Jury Instructions, General Overview, Types of Damages, Compensatory Damages, Intentional Torts, Procedural Matters, Proof, Evidence, Inferences & Presumptions, Damages, Punitive Damages, Defenses, Privileges, Qualified Privileges, Appeals, Standards of Review, De Novo Review, Evidence, Burdens of Proof, Clear & Convincing Proof