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Free Speech

Court Reduces $1.4M Verdict to $71.5K in #TheyLied Renaissance Faire Libel Case

Defendant had accused plaintiffs, "the King and Queen of [the Pittsburgh] Renaissance Faire," of failing to properly deal with allegations of sexual harassment, and of retaliating against sexual harassment victims; the jury found that the defendant knew the statements were false, or at least recklessly disregarded the risk of falsehood.


From Friday's decision in Amor v. Conover (E.D. Pa.) by Judge John Gallagher:

In this case, the Court must decide whether defamation damages sustained by Plaintiffs, the King and Queen of a Renaissance Faire, cut to the bone, or are merely "just a flesh wound." {See Jones, T., & Gilliam, T. (1975). Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Cinema 5 Distributing. [Wait, what's Camelot doing in the Renaissance? -EV].}

Here, Plaintiffs accused the Defendant of defamation, for publishing online accusations about Plaintiffs in their capacities as renaissance faire performance directors. After a jury found for Plaintiffs, Defendant now seeks to vacate the judgment and $1.4 million damages award assessed by the jury. Because a reasonable jury, making its own determinations as to credibility of witnesses, and applying the applicable legal standard, could have found for the Plaintiffs in this action, Defendant's motion will be denied insofar as it seeks to completely vacate the judgment or award of damages. However, because the jury's damages award was unreasonably excessive in light of the evidence presented at trial, the total damages award is remitted to $71,500.

For the reasons that follow, the Court remits the compensatory damages award to Plaintiff Dr. James Amor from $750,000 to $50,000, the punitive damages award to Plaintiff Dr. James Amor from $250,000 to $1,000, the compensatory damages award to Plaintiff Ms. Patricia Amor from $300,000 to $20,000, and the punitive damages award to Plaintiff Ms. Patricia Amor from $100,000 to $500….

Plaintiffs … initiated this defamation action by filing a complaint on December 30, 2021, alleging pro se Defendant … "deliberately, recklessly, and maliciously" published defamatory statements against Plaintiffs online…. Plaintiffs … both worked as assistant directors at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and performance directors at the West Virginia and Pittsburgh Renaissance Faires. As performance director, Dr. Amor testified his responsibilities are to supervise the Renaissance Faire cast/actors, as well as coordinate with independent or national acts that participate in the Faire as well. In addition to his Renaissance Festival involvement, Plaintiff Dr. Amor is a dentist with a business practice located in Pennsylvania.

Defendant, Ms. Conover, was a paying guest at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival who maintained an online blog where she wrote about, among other topics, Plaintiffs.

The blog statements in question claim the Plaintiffs refused to take seriously allegations that renaissance festival cast members/employees under their supervision committed sexual misconduct against other renaissance festival cast members/employees, some of whom were minors under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged abuse. According to Plaintiffs' Complaint, Defendant's statements further allege Plaintiffs "retaliated against said rape and/or sexual assault victims by, amongst other things, publicly humiliating them, calling them crazy, refusing to rehire them, and/or terminating them from employment."

The court concluded that plaintiffs were limited purpose public figures, which means that the jury, to find for plaintiffs, had to find that defendant knew her allegations were false or at least likely false. The jury did find for plaintiffs, "awarded Dr. Amor $750,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages …, and awarded Ms. Amor $300,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages." The court affirmed the verdict:

Plaintiffs allege that Defendant, through her blog and social media postings, published false and defamatory statements concerning Plaintiffs. Among the evidence introduced by Plaintiffs were statements published online by Defendant: referring to Plaintiff Dr. Amor as "the devil," and "a human monster"; accusing Plaintiff Dr. Amor of attacking a victim of sexual misconduct and "gaslight[ing]" her; claiming Plaintiff Dr. Amor told this same victim that "she was a liar" and he "would not even begin to entertain her 'crazy false accusations'"; stating that Plaintiff Dr. Amor "has been aiding and abetting a pedophile for two decades"; and that Dr. Amor engaged in "consistent verbal abuse and threats" toward Renaissance Faire cast members under his supervision and made "fat jokes…stupid jokes, racist jokes, and autism jokes" in the presence of cast members. Defendant's published statements also claim Plaintiff Dr. Amor verbally and physically abused his wife, Plaintiff Ms. Amor.

Plaintiffs also introduced evidence that Defendant published statements online accusing Plaintiff Ms. Amor of requiring a victim of sexual assault to work with her alleged abuser at the renaissance faire, and claiming that Ms. Amor told the victim she "was being immature and dramatic" for refusing to work with her abuser, and that she should "get over it." When the victim told Ms. Amor she had been raped, Defendant wrote that Ms. Amor laughed and told the victim she was "crazy" and should go home….

Here, because a rational jury could find from the evidence introduced at trial that Plaintiffs satisfied their defamation burden of proof, the Court must let the jury's verdict as to liability stand. Defendant argues the evidence showed she did not knowingly lie during the publication of her statements in question or have serious doubts about their truth at the time of publication – and to a reasonable observer, that may be so. But the question here in deciding whether to take the extreme and rare remedy of reversing the jury's verdict is not whether the evidence in the record "could support … a contrary finding," but just "whether the record contains a 'minimum quantum of evidence'" from which the jury could have reasonably found for Plaintiffs. The Court finds that it does. [Details omitted. -EV]

But the court concluded that the damages award was excessive:

Although Plaintiffs, limited purpose public figures who prevailed on their defamation claims under the "actual malice" standard, are entitled to presumed damages, they are not entitled to excessive damages unsupported by the evidentiary record.

At trial, Plaintiffs offered very limited and vague evidence of damages. Plaintiff, Dr. Amor, testified the Defendant's published statements could hypothetically harm his reputation and business because "I am dealing in a position [as a dentist] where I have a certain amount of public trust in my ethics, my morals, and my abilities, basically. And if those things are brought into question I can lose the confidence of my patients in what I do, and also if we're dealing with actual accusations of criminal activity, that's a violation of moral code in the dental code, and basically the State Board of Dentistry can pull my license. The accusations of assault of a minor, by law I am a required reporter of any sort of child abuse in the state of Pennsylvania. If I know the victim I must report suspected child abuse to the State."

Dr. Amor testified that he suffered emotional injuries as a result of Defendant's defamatory statements. Dr. Amor stated he now has "a much tighter and small circle of friends" and does not sleep as well at night. Dr. Amor testified he sought and obtained medication to treat his new difficulty sleeping. Plaintiffs proffered no clear evidence Dr. Amor's private dental practice sustained any loss of business due to Defendant's defamatory statements. Dr. Amor himself testified "it's very hard to tell" whether a decline in patients coming to his practice was due to Defendant's statements. Dr. Amor also testified he sought damages for the amount of time he spent reviewing Defendant's defamatory statements and searching for an attorney.

Based on the available evidentiary record, the Court finds the damages award of $750,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages to Dr. Amor, and $300,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages to Ms. Amor is excessive and unsupported by the evidence. There is no evidence to support a claim the Amors sustained economic damages commensurate with the award amount. Dr. Amor himself testified that it would be "very hard to tell" whether he lost any patients as a result of Defendant's statements. Plaintiffs did not offer any evidence of job loss, suspension, or pay decrease as a result of the statements. Plaintiffs did not offer any evidence demonstrating even approximately how many people saw and read Defendant's statements. Looking to related cases, it is clear Dr. Amor's sleeping difficulties, decision to maintain a tighter circle of friends, and time reviewing and assessing Defendant's statements support an award of some damages, but not $750,000 in compensatory damages. Moreover, it is unclear what evidence, if any, Plaintiffs presented as to Ms. Amor's economic, emotional, or reputational injuries. This Court's determination is supported by a review of relevant, similar case law. [Details omitted. -EV] …

Defendant's defamatory statements were substantially less in volume and were not published or broadcast to a national audience. Plaintiffs do not claim they sustained any loss in future career prospects. Plaintiffs also do not claim they suffered emotional harm such as depression, or that they sought counseling…. [E]vidence of damages sustained by Plaintiffs is sparse. Here, Plaintiffs failed to present evidence as to how many people read the Defendant's defamatory statements, and the evidence clearly indicates the audience of those who read it was substantially less than the audience in Armstrong….

Upon consideration of the aforementioned evidence presented to the jury in this case, and similar relevant cases, as well as the importance of respecting the province of the jury to act as factfinder and the jury's discretion to award a reasonable amount of damages, the Court remits the compensatory damages award with respect to Plaintiff Dr. Amor to $50,000, and remits the compensatory damages award with respect to Plaintiff Ms. Amor to $20,000…. [T]he Court remits the punitive damages award with respect to Plaintiff Dr. Amor to $1,000 and with respect to Plaintiff Ms. Amor to $500.

The way this sort of reduction works is that, in the words of the court's order, "[a] new trial on damages will be held unless the Plaintiffs accept the [reduction of damages]."