Maryland's highest court concluded yesterday that an Eastern Shore newspaper did not defame a lawyer when it printed allegations that he physically abused his daughter.
The Court of Appeals ruled that attorney David M. Williams of Chestertown became a public figure in 1985 when he mailed 1,000 letters to Talbot County voters, blasting former Circuit Judge John C. North II. The judge had given Mr. Williams' former wife custody of their daughter, who was 12 at the time.
Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy's 18-page opinion reversed the Court of Special Appeals, which had ruled in Mr. Williams' favor after he had lost his case in Kent County Circuit Court.
After Mr. Williams mailed the letters, Pat Vojtech, a reporter for the Star-Democrat in Easton, interviewed him and wrote a story that appeared June 27, 1985. The story also appeared a week later in the weekly Kent County News, a sister publication.
Three weeks later, Mr. Williams sued Chesapeake Publishing Corp., the owner of both papers, and others connected with the case, including five Circuit Court judges, a judicial law clerk, four county governments and the director of the Kent County Department of Social Services.
He sued first in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where the lawsuit was reviewed for five years before being dismissed in 1990 for lack of jurisdiction. Mr. Williams then sued in Kent County Circuit Court, claiming that he was defamed by five statements in the story, including reports that he allegedly grabbed his daughter, "threw a chair at her or that he threw her against a wall."
In 1993, Kent County Circuit Judge J. Frederick Price ruled that Mr. Williams failed to prove actual malice, which is required of public figures in defamation cases. To prove actual malice, a plaintiff must show the newspaper knew the information was false or showed reckless disregard for whether the information was true or not. Judge Price granted Chesapeake's motion that the case be dismissed.
In his opinion, Judge Murphy said Mr. Williams might not have liked the story, but that the newspaper and its reporter merely checked out court records and accurately reported why Judge North awarded custody to Mr. Williams' former wife.
"We do not think that a reputable reporter would accept, at face value, the facts of a story from a single participant without further investigation. Emory [the reporter's former name] simply did her job; she looked into what Williams told her and gave a full account of what she uncovered," Judge Murphy wrote.
Mrs. Vojtech declined to be interviewed yesterday.
David R. Thompson, the newspaper's lawyer, said the ruling was an important victory because it instructs Maryland's trial judges to weigh the evidence carefully before putting defamation cases before a jury.
"There's a tendency among judges to generally let cases go to the jury, as a rule. To let the jury decide. This makes it clear that if the judge doesn't think the case should go to the jury, not to let it go to the jury," he said.
He said the ruling also is important because juries, often distrustful of the news media, have awarded huge damages in cases where the defendant is a newspaper or other media outlet.
Mr. Williams said his primary concern was for his daughter's welfare.
"I could see the court's position that, 'Hey, this guy was suing everybody.' Well, I did. But everybody was doing something wrong here," he said.