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Once general (compensatory) damages are established, punitive damages may be awarded on a showing of actual malice, but actual malice may not be considered to enhance compensatory damages. Malice may be shown by conduct manifesting personal ill will or carried out under circumstances evidencing insult or oppression, or even by conduct showing a reckless or wanton disregard of one's rights. Malice supporting punitive damages may be shown by proving that the defendant repeated the defamatory statement, especially when the repetition occurred after commencement of the lawsuit.
Plaintiff former employee had been discharged after giving notice that he was leaving his employment. When he started a competing business, the defendant employer circulated a letter claiming that he had been discharged for "sound business reasons" and the defendant principal made verbal statements to customers falsely asserting that the former employee had a criminal "record a mile long." Plaintiff instituted an action against defendants, seeking compensatory and punitive damages for libel and slander. The jury was instructed on libel and slander, truth, privilege, malice, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff of $ 15,000 in compensatory and $ 25,000 in punitive damages. After judgment was entered, the defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative for a new trial or remittitur. The trial court denied the motions. On appeal, the defendants claimed that the trial court erred in denying their motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, new trial, and remittitur.
Could the defendants be held liable for damages arising from defamation?
Affirming, the court held that libel, whether defamatory on the face of the writing alone or with the aid of extrinsic evidence, was actionable per se. Liability for defamation must logically be based on some showing of "actual harm" to the plaintiff. The court stated that once compensatory damages were established, punitive damages could be awarded on a showing of actual malice. The court found ample evidence for a finding of malice, and found no abuse of discretion in denying the motions for new trial or remittitur.