Private-Figure Defamation; The Joseph Standard

Elliott Menkowitz, M.D. v. Peerless Publications, Inc., 176 A.3d 968 (Pa. Super. 2017), allocatur granted Aug. 1, 2018, appeal docket 40 MAP 2018

This case arises from a defamation suit filed by Dr. Menkowitz against a newspaper organization.  Dr. Menkowitz claimed that by publishing a statement about his suspension, which included misconduct with a patient, the newspaper damaged his reputation and caused him emotional and psychological injuries.  A jury awarded Menkowitz compensatory and punitive damages on the defamation claim; on post-trial motions the trial court vacated the punitive damages award, finding no evidence of malice. the parties appealed to Superior Court.  Menkowitz appealed the vacating of the punitive damages award, arguing that there was clear and convincing evidence that the newspaper acted with malice.  In its cross-appeal, the newspaper challenged the court’s failure to vacate the compensatory damage award based on Menkowitz’s failure to present any evidence showing the alleged defamation caused any actual injuries.

Superior Court affirmed the trial court on its vacation of the punitive damages award, agreeing that there was no clear and convincing evidence showing actual malice on behalf of the newspaper.

As to compensatory damages, the Superior Court reversed, relying on Joseph v. The Scranton Times, L.P., 129 A.3d 404 (Pa 2015) (Joseph III), and reasoning that “[when] an issue of public interest is involved, even a private-figure plaintiff must prove that the statements were false, negligent or maliciously published, and, absent proof of actual malice, that the false defamatory communications caused damage to his reputation.”  For the newspaper to act with malice, it would have had to publish false statements with knowledge, or probable knowledge that the statements were untrue.

Absent proof of malice, the court reasoned, Menkowitz needed to prove an injury to his reputation that was caused by the alleged false statements to recover compensatory damages.  The court held that no causal connection existed between the alleged false statements and the reputational harm.  Such harm to his reputation, the court concluded, most likely occurred from the suspension itself, before the news article was written.

Finding no actual malice, or a causal connection between the allegedly false statements and the harm to Menkowitz’s reputation, Superior Court held that the trial court should have granted judgment N.O.V. on compensatory damages as well.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur on the compensatory damages issue as follows:

Did the Superior Court disregard this Court’s holding in Joseph III by failing to apply the appropriate standards of causation and deference in vacating the judgment entered by the trial court awarding substantial compensatory and consequential damages to Elliot Menkowitz, M.D. for harm to reputation and loss of past and future earnings?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.