|Jessica Medeiros Garrison and Luther Strange|
The house purchase, when viewed in light of Blankenship's order and actual Alabama law, indicates Garrison should have received no damages, even if the finding that I defamed her is assumed correct -- which it wasn't.
Garrison, a Republican operative best known for her close relationship to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, sued me in fall 2013 -- about the same time Shelby County deputies beat me and doused me with pepper spray in my own home and dragged me to jail for a five-month stay. Garrison's complaint alleged that my posts about her extramarital affair with Strange were false and defamatory. She received a default judgment after my wife, Carol, and I were forced to go through a dubious foreclosure on our home of 25 years and wound up being forced to move to Missouri (where I grew up). After the move, I received no notice of actions in the Garrison case -- essentially, I was rendered unable to defend myself, even though I appeared in the case at least twice while in jail -- and that led to Blankenship's default ruling, which has no basis in fact or law.
We will take a closer look at the default judgment in upcoming posts, but for now, our emphasis is on the off-the-charts damages Garrison was awarded. Nothing in the record suggests Garrison's claim merited anything beyond nominal damages, and probably not even that. Newly discovered evidence -- in the form of her recent house purchase that gets pretty close to $1 million -- suggests she should have gotten damages, maybe, sufficient to secure her a hot dog from Sneaky Pete's.
The law of damages in a defamation case is complex, and we won't go into a comprehensive review of the subject. But the off-the-wall nature of the damages, and Garrison's subsequent purchase of a pricey house, point to at least three key issues related to defamation damages. (Defamation, by the way, refers both to libel [unlawful written communications] and slander [unlawful verbal communications]
Defamation per se or per quod
Under Alabama law, the only way to receive damages in a defamation case, especially significant damages, is to prove that you've been the victim of defamation per se or per quod. What does that mean? Here is an explanation from a case styled Blevins v. W.F. Barnes Corp. (Ala. Civ. App., 1999):
“The foundation of an action for libel or slander is a malicious injury to reputation, and any false and malicious imputation of crime or moral delinquency by one published of and concerning another, which subjects the person to disgrace, ridicule, odium, or contempt in the estimation of his friends and acquaintances, or the public, with resulting damage to his reputation, is actionable either per se or per quod․”
In every-day language, a per se claim (meaning "on its face") involves allegedly false imputations regarding criminal conduct (an indictable offense of infamy or moral turpitude), and at least nominal damages are assumed when such a claim is proven before a jury. In short, Garrison had to prove she had a per se claim to receive nominal or compensatory damages. (See Drill Parts v. Joy Mfg., 619 So. 2d 1280 [Ala. Supreme Court 1993])
A per quod claim does not involve imputations regarding a crime of infamy or moral turpitude. In a per quod claim, the plaintiff must allege and prove special damages.
We invite you to view Blankenship's ruling, the one granting Garrison $3.5 million, at the end of this post. Does he make a finding of either defamation per se or defamation per quod? No, he does not. Even Garrison does not claim I imputed criminal conduct or acts of moral turpitude. For such a substantial award, there would have to be a finding of defamation per se. But there is no such finding. That means the monstrous damages have no support in law, and neither would mere nominal damages.
In his order, Blankenship breaks the award into $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages. But we've already shown that, without a finding of defamation per se or per quod, there is no basis for compensatory damages at all. And without compensatory damages, there can be no punitive damages. (See Tanner v. Ebbele, Ala. Civ. App., 2011.)
Bottom line? Garrison's damages, under the law, equal zero.
Defamation and mental anguish
According to Blankenship's order, Garrison mostly claimed damages related to mental anguish. The order states, "Plaintiff further testified that the comments contained in the blog were embarrassing, hurtful and degrading." The order further states that since "comments posted to the blog have become widely known," Garrison "constantly suffers from embarrassment and anxiety." (Note: The court's words suggest Garrison was harmed by comments that readers posted to Legal Schnauzer, not by anything I reported. Law in the Internet age has held that publishers of Web sites or blogs are not legally responsible for comments left by third parties.)
Under Alabama law, there can only be a finding of mental suffering once defamation per se has been proven. (See Tanner v. Ebbele.) Without a per se finding from Blankenship, there can be no damages for mental suffering.
Also, this is where the newly discovered evidence of Garrison's home purchase enters the picture. Her purchase of an $835,000 house in Mountain Brook is almost twice what she paid for her previous "Tiny Kingdom" home. If Garrison was suffering so mightily from embarrassment and anxiety, how was she able to establish financial standing that would allow her to buy such a pricey house? Wouldn't such a traumatized person barely be able to hang on to the house she already had?
Defamation and job performance
According to Blankenship's order, Garrison claimed the "defamation" had affected her in the workplace. From the order: "[Garrison] testified further that the comments made it difficult to perform her job." (Again, the court's words suggest it was reader comments, not my reporting, that caused problems for Garrison.)
How badly was Garrison harmed in her professional life? Well, since being "defamed," she's been able to purchase a house that is worth almost twice what her previous house was worth? That suggests Garrison's professional standing actually has improved since my posts hit the Web. Shoot, maybe Garrison should ask me to "defame" her more often.
The bottom line? Using Blankenship's own words, and his version of Garrison's testimony in court, there is no legal support for any damages against me. But that hardly is the only way her judgment has sprung a leak.
(To be continued)