Houston partner John K. Edwards recently argued before the Texas Supreme Court on behalf of a newspaper and reporter in an important libel case that started in 2003 concerning an article published in a Fort Bend County newspaper. The two key issues presented during oral argument on September 13, 2016, were whether the article related to a matter of public concern, thus implicating certain burdens of proof at trial, and whether there was legally sufficient evidence of mental anguish and reputational harm damages.
The libel case was brought by Wade Brady, son of former Chief Deputy Craig Brady, against the West Fort Bend Star newspaper and one its former reporters, LeaAnne Klentzman. The article reported on certain allegedly questionable actions taken by the plaintiff’s father, a public official, related to his son’s encounters with law enforcement, including repeated meetings with the officers involved in issuing a Minor-in-Possession ticket to Wade Brady. The article also referenced two other law enforcement encounters by Wade Brady and the Chief Deputy’s connection to those encounters.
During a jury trial in 2011, the trial court ruled that none of the speech at issue related to matters of public concern. Thus, the court required the newspaper and reporter to prove truth, instead of requiring the plaintiff to prove falsity, and did not require the plaintiff to prove “actual malice” to recover presumed or exemplary damages. The jury awarded mental anguish and reputational harm damages to Wade Brady, and imposed exemplary damages against the defendants. The First Court of Appeals reversed on the public concern question, holding that the article as a whole and all statements within related to matters of public concern, but upheld the award of damages.
“The jury was improperly instructed as to the entirety of the article and as to the individual statements,” Edwards argued. Edwards emphasized that the public concern question is vital to “first amendment values, including robust discussion of public affairs.” All of the speech at issue, Edwards contended, related to matters of public concern, not purely of private concern.
During argument before the high court, Edwards noted that the Court of Appeals properly reversed the trial court and held, under long standing precedent, that the “entire gist of the article was a matter of public concern,” and that individual statements were also related to such a concern or had a logical nexus to the gist of the article. As such, the trial court erred in failing to require that the plaintiff prove both falsity and “actual malice,” requiring remand for a new trial.
“It’s not as if we had reported that Wade Brady had received an ‘F’ in Algebra, or that he dressed poorly, or made some totally independent statement that had no connection to his public official father,” Edwards argued. “All of the statements in this article, if you look at them individually or taken as a whole, relate to a public official and his actions, law enforcement matters, which are clearly a matter of public concern.”
Edwards emphasized the importance of upholding a higher burden of proof in libel cases involving discussion of matters of public concern, even where otherwise private figures are discussed in the context of the public concern discussion.
“Public officials know they can’t sue and win, because they’ll have a higher burden of proof –they have to prove actual malice,” Edwards argued. “But if there’s an otherwise private person mentioned in the discussion in any way, that person can sue and be able to recover damages under a lesser standard. We thinks that’s what happened here and the testimony in the trial court actually supports that because Chief Deputy Brady said that he was waiting –just waiting—for this newspaper to say something where he could sue and this was the instance in which it occurred.”
Edwards also argued that the Court of Appeals erred in holding there was legally sufficient evidence of mental anguish and reputational harm damages, urging the court not to lower the bar for recovery of such damages and instead adhere to long-standing precedent.
Edwards was assisted by Luke Gilman and Amanda Bush, who have defended the case since its inception.
About our Team
John K. Edwards represents clients in complex commercial and tort-based litigation (trial and appellate in both state and federal courts). He brings value to his clients through effective advocacy skills, sound legal analysis, good judgment, and adherence to the highest standards of professionalism. Luke Gilman has developed particular areas of expertise in First Amendment and defamation litigation, international and domestic arbitration, and technology-related disputes and investigations, in addition to a general commercial and contract litigation practice. Amanda Bush represents clients in a variety of litigation matters including complex commercial matters, intellectual property, and media and First Amendment.