How to Lose Your Defamation Case in Three Easy Steps

December 5, 2012

First, don't hire a lawyer. (What do lawyers know about defamation law, anyway?) Second, refuse to comply with the court's orders and local rules. Finally, file a whole bunch of frivolous and nonsensical motions, such as a "Motion for Declaration All Rulings & Judgments Be Rendered Null & Void," a motion against opposing counsel for engaging in "felonious conspirator tactics," and a "Motion to Declare All Your Base Are Belong to Us." With the exception of the "all your base" example, a defendant recently tried all of these tactics in North Carolina federal court and came away with a judgment against him that included punitive damages.

William Mann, a member of the Professional Golfers Association Hall of Fame, acquired a North Carolina country club but then declared bankruptcy and moved to South Carolina. M. Dale Swiggett sent a letter to hundreds of recipients accusing Mann of fraud and crimes and claiming Mann left North Carolina after declaring bankruptcy and paid cash for his South Carolina house. Swiggett then sent a letter to the judge who had presided over Mann's bankruptcy, accusing Mann of covering up "sludge spreading and spills."

Mann sued Swiggett in the Eastern District of North Carolina for libel, seeking $2 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages for injury to his reputation and livelihood. Swiggett, acting pro se, responded by overloading the court's docket with numerous groundless motions, inducing the court to strike his Answer as a sanction. After entering summary judgment in Mann's favor, the only remaining issue was the amount of damages.

Even in a libel per se case like this one, a plaintiff must present sufficient evidence to support an award of compensatory damages. Speculative damages are not recoverable.

The Court found that while Mann demonstrated inconvenience and embarrassment, he failed to present sufficient evidence of damage to reputation, loss of enjoyment of life, or mental suffering. Although Mann feared losing his job and said he missed out on consulting work, his job remained intact and he failed to show actual consulting opportunities he'd lost. The Court, therefore, awarded only $100.00 in compensatory damages. Still, the Court awarded $25,000 in punitive damages in light of the "reprehensibility" of Swiggett's behavior.