Plaintiff Limited to Nominal Presumed Damages in Defamation Case Absent Proof of Actual Harm

On May 21, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a corrected Opinion in W.J.A. v. D.A.. In that Opinion, the Court held that presumed damages continue to play a role in New Jersey’s defamation jurisprudence in private plaintiff cases that do not involve matters of public concern. Where a plaintiff does not proffer any evidence of actual damage to reputation, the doctrine of presumed damages permits him/her to survive a motion for summary judgment and to obtain nominal damages if successful at trial. The Court emphasized, however, that in order to receive compensatory damages, a plaintiff must prove actual harm to his/her reputation.

This case began with a complaint seeking compensatory and punitive damages filed by D.A. against his uncle, W.J.A., alleging that W.J.A. had sexually assaulted D.A. at various times when D.A. was a minor. W.J.A. denied the allegations and counterclaimed for defamation, among other torts. W.J.A. ultimately obtained an award of $50,000 for his defamation counterclaim. D.A. unsuccessfully moved to vacate the judgment and while that motion was pending, he created a website on which he identified by name W.J.A., recounted the alleged sexual abuse and expressed D.A.’s dissatisfaction with the court system. D.A.’s case was dismissed on statute of limitations grounds.

W.J.A. filed a separate defamation action against D.A. as a result of the postings on the website. The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of D.A. Although the judge determined that D.A.’s statements were defamatory per se, he nevertheless granted summary judgment because W.J.A. had presented no proof of damages. The Appellate Division reversed and held that defamatory Internet postings constitute libel, not slander, and found that, under existing law, damages could be presumed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division holding that defamation on the Internet constitutes libel. The Court further determined that D.A.’s speech did not constitute a matter of public concern. Based upon the analysis previously set forth by the Court in Senna v. Florimont, the Court held that D.A.’s speech did not involve a matter of public concern because: (1) D.A. was not a media defendant; (2) his statements did not promote self-government or advance the public’s vital interests; and (3) he had the ability to exercise due care when making his statements, but chose to publish them online for anyone to view. The Court also noted that the statements concerned W.J.A., alone.

Having found that the case involved a private plaintiff and a private matter, the Court determined that the doctrine of presumed damages – the losses which are normal and anticipated when a person’s reputation is impaired – applied. While this permitted W.J.A.’s defamation claim to survive summary judgment, the Court limited him to collecting nominal damages if successful at trial. Specifically, the Court expressly stated that compensatory damages cannot be presumed and that in order for a plaintiff to receive compensatory damages, he/she must prove actual harm, pecuniary or otherwise, to his/her reputation through the production of evidence.

The corrected Opinion removed from the original all references to the possibility of an award of punitive damages based on a nominal damage award — as the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act precludes same.

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