false allegations of criminal conduct are libelous per se and thus actionable without proof of special damages. See Farnum v. Colbert, 293 A.2d at 281.
Plaintiffs have offered no evidence of any actual damages they suffered as a result of the libel. Rather, they seek award of presumed damages for loss to reputation and punitive damages to deter Goemans from similar conduct in the future.
In libel cases, presumed and punitive damages are permitted when it is shown that the defendant acted with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 349, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789, 94 S. Ct. 2997 (1974); Davis v. Schuchat, 166 U.S. App. D.C. 351, 510 F.2d 731, 737 (D.C. Cir. 1975); Ingber v. Ross, 479 A.2d 1256, 1265 (D.C. App. 1984). The Court concludes that plaintiffs meet that standard. Goemans made his allegations with a reckless disregard for the truth because he failed to make a reasonable investigation of the veracity of his charges.
The Court has broad discretion in determining the amount of presumed damages and may consider "'the seriousness of the defamatory charge, the extent of distribution of the defamation, the extent to which the communication was actually believed, and plaintiff's prominence and professional standing in the community.'" Ingber v. Ross, 479 A.2d at 1265 (quoting R. Sack, Libel, Slander, and Related Problems 354-55 (1980)).
In this case, Goemans' charges were serious and were published to more than 170 persons. As attorneys, plaintiffs have a clear interest in maintaining untarnished reputations. There is little to suggest, however, that recipients of Goemans' letter believed or credited Goemans' charges. Compare Secord v. Schlachter, 568 F. Supp. 56 (D.D.C. 1983).
Damages for loss of reputation without proof of actual damage "are extremely difficult to quantify," and in such cases, "a nominal recovery may be sufficient to vindicate the injury to reputation." Airlie Foundation, Inc. v. Evening Star Newspaper Co., 337 F. Supp. 421, 431 (D.D.C. 1972). Since this judgment establishes the falsity of Goemans' allegations, an award of $2,500 in presumed damages will be sufficient to vindicate the injury to plaintiffs' reputation.
An award of punitive damages requires a finding of actual malice or wanton conduct. See Afro-American Publishing Co., 366 F.2d at 661. The Court concludes that Goemans' conduct was wanton. As noted, Goemans made his allegations without conducting a reasonable investigation, and there is evidence that Goemans' letter was motivated by his desire to recruit Pangold and Goldmar investors to the group he and Sharmat were forming.
The Court is mindful that punitive damages are not favored. See Vassiliades v. Garfinckel's, 492 A.2d 580, 593 (D.C. App. 1985). Such awards must "be large enough to act as an effective deterrent. They should not be larger." Collins v. Brown, 268 F. Supp. 198, 201 (D.D.C. 1967). Punitive damages awards may take into account any profit made by the defendant as a result of the libel, as well as plaintiffs' litigation costs. Davis v. Schuchat, 510 F.2d at 738 n.7. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Goemans profited from his libel, but the record does indicate that plaintiffs have incurred significant litigation costs. In view of these circumstances, the Court concludes that an award of $7,500 in punitive damages is appropriate and will serve as an effective deterrent.
This case having come before the Court for trial on February 21, 1986, and the Court having considered the evidence and made the findings of fact and conclusions of law described in the accompanying memorandum, it is by the Court this 10th day of March, 1986,
ORDERED that judgment be, and hereby is, entered for plaintiffs and against defendant John W. Goemans; and it is further
ORDERED defendant Goemans pay plaintiffs $2,500 in presumed damages and $7,500 in punitive damages.