Snyder v. Phelps Update

The jury awarded $2.9M, purportedly finding liability on all four counts. (Remember, they were defamation [which did not stem from the funeral protests themselves], invasion of privacy: intrusion on seclusion, invasion of privacy: public disclosure of private facts, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.) I still think the invasion of privacy suits should have failed because if we're going to have public property, the Constitution controls the contradiction. I do not think the behavior of the WBC protesters was sufficiently extreme or outrageous to warrant a finding of liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. And I find the defamation claim uninteresting, meaning that it may well be valid, but since it stems from material published on the WBC Websites and not from the protests directly, I'm not interested in it.

As if $2.9M weren't enough, the jury went on to award $8M punitive damages. Now I think we can all guess my opinion on punitive damages. That's right: they suck. If Defendant has done something worth punishing him for above and beyond having to compensate Plaintiff, then Defendant should be punished by the criminal justice system. If Defendant hasn't done something rising to the level of a crime, but Plaintiff still wants to punish him, well, too bad. Civil law is not about punishment; it's about compensation. The procedure itself is punishment enough.

The judgment isn't up on WestLaw yet. I would be very surprised if the court doesn't reduce the awards significantly before entering judgment. I'd be even more surprised if the media were to actually report the reduction. Terribly unsensational. So I'll keep an eye on WestLaw for it. Or maybe I'll get it from PACER next week.

The other thing about punitive damages is: they're allegedly supposed to be used to discourage high net worth defendants from figuring compensatory damages into the cost of doing business. WBC and the Phelps family are reportedly not even worth $2.9M. The punitive award will almost certainly be reduced, either at the trial level or on appeal. At this point, they're trying to wring blood from a stone what's already had all the blood wrung out of it.

Tom G Varik