Newspaper ordered to pay $2.5 million

Jury says Capital editorial hurt lawyer's practice

April 15, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County jury yesterday ordered the Annapolis Capital to pay $2.5 million to a political candidate who said a 1997 editorial in the newspaper caused his law practice to shrivel and humiliated him.

Attorneys said the award is the largest they could recall against a Maryland newspaper. It is one of the biggest in an Anne Arundel County civil trial.

The verdict ended a weeklong trial that pitted Annapolis lawyer John R. Greiber, 56, against the daily newspaper, which has a circulation of about 50,000 in and around Maryland's capital city.

"We feel vindicated," said Greiber, standing with his wife, Cease. "We think the jury's verdict was fair."

Roy L. Mason, one of two lawyers for Greiber, said the award showed that just because Greiber lost a 1994 bid for state's attorney, "that doesn't give a newspaper a license to defame someone."

The newspaper's attorneys' defense was as much about local politics and Republican patronage as about circumstances surrounding the Sept. 28, 1997, editorial and its wording.

"We do think there are grounds for appeal," said Raymond G. Mullady Jr., one of three lawyers for the newspaper.

The three-man, three-woman jury awarded Greiber $1.2 million in lost income and $1.3 million for embarrassment and humiliation. The jury decided against punitive damages.

"That's a pretty big award," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"It will have a major chilling effect on public debate," she said.

However, she said, the verdict may not survive an appeal.

Defamation claims against a newspaper rarely go to trial. When they do, chances of a verdict against the news media are good, but most jury verdicts in libel cases are overturned on appeal, she said.

The six jurors, who deliberated five hours, did not want to talk about the trial.

But the two alternates, dismissed Thursday, said they did not feel that Greiber had a case.

Thomas Marquardt, the managing editor who wrote the editorial, declined to comment.

His editorial called Greiber an "unqualified ally" of then-County Executive John G. Gary and said Gary "continues to feed" Greiber county legal work.

Marquardt testified that he meant Greiber was not a credible candidate in 1994 to be the county's chief prosecutor because, among the issues, he had not tried criminal cases.

Mason told jurors that readers took the wording to refer to Greiber's qualifications as a lawyer. Two witnesses testified that they ended plans to give Greiber more than $1 million in legal work over several years because of the editorial.

But the newspaper's lawyers argued that they did not give the work to anyone else.

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