Huge award in funeral lawsuit

$10.9 million damages for kin of Marine killed in Iraq

November 01, 2007|By Matthew Dolan and Julie Bykowicz | Matthew Dolan and Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporters

A federal jury in Baltimore awarded nearly $11 million yesterday to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq, deciding that the family's privacy had been invaded by a Kansas church whose members waved anti-gay signs at the funeral.

It was the first-ever verdict against Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group based in Topeka that has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers."

They contend that the deaths are punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military.

Relatives of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder wept and hugged at the jury's announcement, which came a day after closing arguments in the civil trial in federal district court.

"Now I know it's going to be harder for them to do it to anyone else," said Albert Snyder, who mourned at his son's funeral in March 2006 while seven Westboro members waved signs nearby.

The compensatory damage award alone, $2.9 million, was nearly triple the net worth of Westboro and the three members on trial, their attorney said.

Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro's founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va.

"It's going to be reversed in five minutes," he said. This case, he added, "will elevate me to something important," as it draws more publicity to his cause.

The jury found the defendants liable for violating the Snyder family's expectation of privacy at the funeral and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

Snyder's lawsuit spurred a constitutional debate over how far the First Amendment should extend to protect the most extreme forms of expression.

Some legal experts said the judgment could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections.

"I think when speech is a matter of public concern it still has to be protected, even when by social standards it is extraordinarily rude and outrageous," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber said the size of award, which included $8 million in punitive damages, could have a chilling effect on speech.

"This was in a public space," Graber said "While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that's reprehensible."

After the verdict, Phelps and his two daughters named in Snyder's lawsuit said they believed that it was really their religious beliefs that were on trial.

"The goofy jury threw a fit at God," Phelps said.

For years, Westboro members have crisscrossed the country, turning funerals of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan into attention-grabbing platforms to criticize homosexuals as immoral and damned. The church's 75-member congregation is composed mainly of Phelps' relatives.

The group also blames disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and AIDS, on what it views as permissive morals in violation of biblical dictates.

Alarmed by Westboro protests, at least 22 states have proposed or enacted laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Months after Matthew Snyder's death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting targeted picketing within 300 feet of a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession.

The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at Snyder's funeral or whether the protesters crossed the line because their message impugned the grieving family's reputation and unlawfully invaded the Snyders' privacy.

The Marine's father, a 52-year- old who lives in York, Pa., sued the church and three of its members, founder Phelps and two of his daughters, Rebecca Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper.

For Snyder's claim of invasion of privacy to have succeeded, the jury needed to conclude that the church's actions at the funeral - and later, in an Internet posting about Matthew Snyder on its Web site - were "highly offensive to a reasonable person," according to the jury instructions.

Albert Snyder also contended that the church's actions were an intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under the law, to find in favor of Snyder, the five women and four men of the jury needed to find that the church's conduct was "intentional or reckless."

Jury instructions also required that the conduct be "extreme and outrageous," leading to severe emotional distress.

"You must balance the defendants' expression of religious belief with another citizen's right to privacy," U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett instructed jurors Tuesday.

The weeklong trial brought together Snyder and his family and the progeny of Phelps, a retired attorney.

In the courtroom, the Phelps family dressed plainly, its women with long hair and no makeup. In testimony, they stood steadfast to their beliefs and did not apologize for their conduct.

Often overcome by emotion, Albert Snyder sat in shirtsleeves and flanked by his attorneys. When the videos made of the protest at his son's funeral were played for jurors during closing arguments, he wept.

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