There are numerous cases in which trial courts have required a reduction of punitive damages awarded by the jury in defamation cases. Without any attempt at even approaching an exhaustion of the authorities, a few illustrative decisions may be cited.
In Texas Plastics, Inc. v. Roto-Lith, Ltd., 5th Cir., 250 F.2d 844, in which a slanderous statement was repeated to numerous persons that a corporation, its officials and employees were cheating customers, the jury awarded compensatory damages in the sum of $35,000 and punitive damages in the sum of $50,000. The award of punitive damages was reduced by the trial judge from $50,000 to $25,000. The judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
In Moyle v. Franz, 267 App.Div. 423, 46 N.Y.S.2d 667, a libel suit was brought against the publishers of a periodical published by Jehovah's Witnesses, known as "The Watchtower". The jury awarded compensatory damages in the sum of $5,000 and punitive damages amounting to $10,000. The appellate court ordered a reduction of the total verdict from $15,000 to $7,500. The Court of Appeals affirmed the order of the Appellate Division, 293 N.Y. 842, 59 N.E.2d 437.
In Toomey v. Farley, 286 App.Div. 1084, 147 N.Y.S.2d 672, the plaintiffs were charged in a political campaign document with being Communists. An award of $10,000 as compensatory damages and $7,500 as punitive damages was reduced by the Appellate Division to $5,000 as compensatory damages and $5,000 as punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed the order of the Appellate Division, 2 N.Y.2d 71, 156 N.Y.S.2d 840, 138 N.E.2d 221.
In Erlich v. Etner, 224 Cal.App.2d 69, 36 Cal.Rptr. 256, an award of $75,000 as compensatory damages and $50,000 as punitive damages was reduced by the trial court to $30,000 as compensatory damages, and $5,000 as punitive damages. On appeal a new trial was ordered on another ground.
There are indeed cases in which juries have awarded verdicts for huge amounts in libel cases and the awards were not disturbed. Such an outcome has occurred where a grave and vicious libel was circulated on the radio, television, or newspapers on a nationwide basis. Such a case was Reynolds v. Pegler, D.C., 123 F. Supp. 36, affirmed 2 Cir., 223 F.2d 429.
The instant case is not in that category. Here the defamatory statement, while malevolent and harmful, was communicated to only one individual, who in turn transmitted it to one other person. It did not receive a wide circulation. The extent of the dissemination of the defamatory statement is an important factor to be considered in determining the amount of punitive damages.
The Court is of the opinion that, as stated heretofore, the amount of $15,000 awarded as compensatory damages is fair and reasonable. It should stand. The Court is further of the opinion that the sum of $30,000 awarded as punitive damages is excessive and that any amount exceeding $10,000 would be questionable and subject to revision. The Court concludes that the amount of punitive damages should be reduced to $10,000.
Accordingly the defendant's motion for a new trial will be granted unless the plaintiff within 10 days stipulates to a remittitur of $20,000 in respect to punitive damages, thereby reducing them to $10,000. The result would be an award of $15,000 as compensatory damages and $10,000 as punitive damages, which the Court regards as fair and reasonable.