High court frees $1 million for tabloid victim Woman, 98, sued over use of photo

October 19, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Nellie Mitchell, 98, had an appointment with her eye doctor yesterday, so she didn't go to the stand where she sells newspapers on the courthouse square in Mountain Home, Ark. No matter. She learned that she now can collect $1 million, after a little help from the Supreme Court.

The court issued a brief order here removing a legal hold on a jury verdict she had won for invasion of her privacy by a supermarket tabloid when it used her picture to illustrate a story it made up about a 101-year-old pregnant newspaper carrier in Australia.

The justices gave no explanation for turning down an appeal of the verdict by Globe International Inc., Canadian publisher of the Sun, based in Florida.

The action yesterday touched a town of about 8,000 Arkansans in the Ozark Mountains and its now-famous main street newspaper merchant.

Roy E. Danuser, Ms. Mitchell's Mountain Home lawyer, said in a telephone interview that her reaction to the court order "was just very matter-of-fact. She said it was good to know that her rights are protected, just like folks who have a lot of money, and very prominent people."

He added: "You have to know this lady to know how matter-of-fact she is."

For nearly 40 years, she has operated a tiny newsstand squeezed between two stores on the courthouse square in Mountain Home.

She no longer can go to the stand every day, her lawyer said, because she fell and hurt her hip some months ago.

But, Mr. Danuser said, she does run the stand frequently.

As a result of the Supreme Court's action, a local bank, Peoples Bank and Trust Co., is legally free to release exactly $1 million she won after the Sun put her picture next to a story -- entirely fictitious -- about a 101-year-old woman who got pregnant by one of the customers on her newspaper route.

An editor at the Sun insisted later that the photo, taken from the files, was used because the staff assumed Nellie Mitchell was dead.

The picture had been used 10 years earlier in a real story about her in another Globe publication, the National Examiner.

Ms. Mitchell, who was 95 when the phony Sun story was published, was very much alive, and she was angry and upset, local townspeople later said.

Going to court against Globe International with a variety of claims, Ms. Mitchell ultimately got $150,000 in damages to cover the harm done to her plus another $850,000 to punish the publisher for its action.

Ms. Mitchell has never collected that because Justice Harry A. Blackmun last summer temporarily blocked payment to the bank that looks after her financial affairs.

Justice Blackmun's order ran out yesterday when the full court refused, apparently without dissent, to hear the publisher's appeal.

To hear base-closing case

In another order yesterday, the court said it would decide whether federal courts have any power to oversee federal government plans to close military bases.

That issue grows out of an effort to keep the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard open.

That order, setting the stage for a potentially significant ruling on presidential power, came in reaction to an appeal by John H. Dalton, the Navy secretary.

The government is challenging an appeals court ruling in May that allowed a federal judge to decide whether the correct procedures were followed in deciding to close a U.S. military base in this country.

Members of Congress from the Philadelphia area, as well as local officials and shipyard workers and their labor unions, have contended that improper procedures were used in 1991 in making the decision to shut down that facility.

The Navy's appeal argues that allowing that legal challenge to go forward will result in unconstitutional interference with the president's power to make key decisions about the military.

The Navy contends that the base-closing process should be insulated from any review by the federal courts.

A final decision is expected sometime next year.

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