Lawsuit reflects a rising trend

Builder wins case against customer in defamation trial

Increasingly common claim

July 03, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

For four years, Thomas Beall would appear each morning to picket in front of Charles Gast's office in White Marsh.

Gast, a building contractor, would see Beall holding a sign that accused Gast of breaching the contract the two men signed in 1993 when Gast built Beall's $126,000 brick rancher in Joppatowne.

Gast thought Beall's claims were groundless.

"We made every effort to satisfy this fellow," he said.

But thousands of cars drove by Gast Construction, in the 11100 block of Pulaski Highway, and that meant thousands of people saw the sign with its accusation.

"He'd be here mornings, nights and weekends," Gast said.

Gast sued Beall April 20, 1999, in Baltimore County Circuit Court, accusing him of defamation for "demeaning, misrepresenting, distorting and defaming his business activities."

After a two-day trial before Judge John F. Fader II, a jury agreed and on June 21 ordered Beall to pay Gast $9,200 for defaming him and his business.

Beall, an auto body repairman who represented himself in the two-day trial, did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment or respond to a visit to his home last week. He was unavailable for comment yesterday, a family member at his home said.

But in a Feb. 18 letter filed in the Circuit Court case, he seemed anxious for his side to be heard.

"I want my day in court and wish to have a decision made in this case," he wrote.

Gast, who has built more than 350 homes over the past two decades, said that he sued because Beall's claim that there were numerous problems with the house wasn't true - and because the picketing was damaging his reputation.

"What finally forced us to go court was the humiliation of it. People would say, `Oh yeah, you're the guy with the picket out front,'" said Gast. "It was so unfair."

Gast said the suit followed years of efforts to resolve the dispute.

He made repairs to the home in 1996 and later that year paid a $5,719 settlement to resolve a suit Beall filed against him in Harford County District Court in Bel Air.

Experts say that while most defamation suits are still filed against the news media, defamation claims against individuals, while rare, are on the rise.

"It's an increasingly common claim," said Paul Bland, a defamation expert and lawyer for Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

Bland said that more businesses are using defamation suits to discourage people from criticizing their operations.

He said the operators of a New York doughnut shop recently sued a customer for defamation after he began picketing the shop, claiming that he had suffered food poisoning after eating there.

The suit was thrown out of court, but it brought an end to the picketing, he said.

"Usually the suits aren't successful, but they're seen as an attempt to get people to shut up," Bland said.

Experts say that to win a defamation claim, one has to show that the harmful information was a statement of fact, not just an opinion.

"You can't sue someone for saying, `I think she's ugly.' That's opinion," said Elizabeth McNamara, a lawyer with Davis, Wright and Tremaine, a Washington firm defending U.S. News & World Report in a recent defamation suit.

The plaintiff also must prove that the statement was harmful and false, and that disseminating it was negligent, experts say.

If a defamation suit is brought by a public figure, that person must show that a defendant either knew the statement was false or showed reckless disregard for whether it was true, an added protection for the defendant often cited by the news media.

Marvin Singer, Gast's lawyer, said his case may have hinged on proving that Gast didn't breach the contract, but built a home and made repairs to it.

"The point was, he made reasonable efforts to satisfy this man," Singer said.

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