High Cost of Libel

October 23, 1981

Report Outline
Era of ‘Mega-Judgments’
Evolution of Libel Law
Outlook for Libel Issue
Special Focus

Era of ‘Mega-Judgments’

Recent Multimillion-Dollar Libel Awards

Libel, ever the publisher's nightmare, became front-page news last March when entertainer Carol Burnett won a $1.6 million judgment against The National Enquirer. The spotlight beamed on the Burnett case illuminated not a singular incident, but an apparent trend that adds a new and costly dimension to the already thorny problem of libel litigation. Juries seem more willing to “punish” offending publications with multimillion-dollar libel judgments. As one reporter described it, we may have entered a new era: “the era of mega-judgments.”

The verdict against the Enquirer did not in itself raise much controversy, even within a journalistic community that is jealously protective of its right to publish. The Enquirer, a Florida-based tabloid specializing in sensational stories about celebrities, is disparaged by many journalists as a “scandal sheet.”

Nor did the case break any new legal ground. Burnett claimed that a 1976 Enquirer gossip item, portraying her as raucous, rude and possibly drunk at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, had subjected her to ridicule, caused her emotional distress, and damaged her credibility as a spokeswoman against alcoholism. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) and subsequent rulings, “public figures” such as Burnett must prove “actual malice,” or reckless disregard for the truth on the part of the publisher. Burnett did so to the satisfaction of the jury, presenting evidence that the Enquirer's editors and writers had reason to believe the story was false before they published it.

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