The plaintiff, X, is a college basketball coach. In a story about the upcoming basketball season, a newspaper publishes the following statement: “During one memorable practice, X slapped two players in the face for failing to follow his instructions.” In the ensuing public outcry, a civil rights group publishes this statement on its website: “X routinely singles out minority players for abuse, while treating white players more favorably.”
Incensed and humiliated, X files a defamation suit based on these two statements, naming both the newspaper and the civil rights group as defendants. X files the complaint in the appropriate U.S. district court, which has both personal and subject-matter jurisdiction, and which is a proper venue.
To prevail under applicable law, X must prove the following elements as to each defendant: (1) the defendant published the statement, (2) the statement was false, and (3) the defendant acted with knowledge or reckless disregard of the statement’s falsity.
The case goes to trial. After closing arguments, the judge asks the jury to return a general verdict as to each defendant, including answers to written questions about the facts. To this end, the judge gives the jury two verdict forms, one for each defendant. The judge instructs the jury to answer each question that applies. The completed forms are as follows, with the jury’s answers in capital letters:
Questions of Fact: (1) Did the defendant publish the statement? YES (2) If so, was the statement true or false? TRUE (3) If the statement was false, did the defendant act with knowledge or reckless disregard that the statement was false? YES. If you answered Yes to Question 1, False to Question 2, and Yes to Question 3, go to Question 4. Otherwise, stop here.
General Verdict: (4) Is the defendant liable to the plaintiff? YES (5) If so, in what amount? $100,000.
Defendant Civil Rights Group:
Questions of Fact: (1) Did the defendant publish the statement? YES (2) If so, was the statement true or false? FALSE (3) If the statement was false, did the defendant act with knowledge or reckless disregard that the statement was false? YES If you answered Yes to Question 1, False to Question 2, and Yes to Question 3, go to Question 4. Otherwise, stop here.
General Verdict: (4) Is the defendant liable to the plaintiff? YES (5) If so, in what amount? $50,000.
The judge enters judgment against the newspaper for $100,000.
The judge also enters judgment against the civil rights group, but erroneously writes the amount as $5,000 instead of $50,000. Two days later, the newspaper files a timely motion for a new trial under Fed. R. Civ. P. 49, arguing that the jury’s answers to the judge’s questions show that the jury misunderstood the relevant instructions.
- How should the judge rule on the newspaper’s motion? Explain.
- What relief can X seek in the trial court regarding the error in the amount of the judgment against the civil rights group? Would you offer X any good practice points to consider in seeking this relief? Explain.