The opinion of the court was delivered by: METZNER
Defendant The New York Times Company (the Times) moves for judgment notwithstanding the verdict rendered by the jury in favor of the plaintiffs in this action. Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 50(b).
This is a libel action in which the jury awarded compensatory damages, but denied punitive damages, in favor of each of the plaintiffs against the Times and defendant Roland Clemen, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, Inc. (the Society). The jury also rendered a verdict in favor of defendants Robert S. Arbib, Jr. and the Society.
The basis for the motion is that the standard of liability created in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80, 84 S. Ct. 710, 726, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964), has not been met by the evidence produced by these plaintiffs. That standard permits recovery only if the plaintiff proves "that the statement was made with 'actual malice' - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."
The background of this lawsuit starts with the appearance of the Foreword to the April 1972 issue of "American Birds," a magazine published by the Society. Despite its date, the magazine was not distributed until the first week of July, 1972. Sometime around the end of July or the beginning of August, John Devlin, Sr., a reporter for the Times who has specialized in nature stories, read the issue and his attention was caught by statements made in the Foreword directed to the use of the Christmas bird count in connection with the DDT controversy that was raging in those days. The Foreword stated that it was "well aware that segments of the pesticide industry and certain paid 'scientist-spokesmen' are citing Christmas Bird Count totals... as proving that the bird life in North America is thriving, and that many species are actually increasing despite the widespread and condemned use of DDT and other nondegradable hydrocarbon pesticides." The Foreword went on to state that: "This, quite obviously, is false and misleading, a distortion of the facts for the most self-serving of reasons."
After stating what is supposed to be the truth regarding the bird count and its implications, this portion of the Foreword concludes:
"Any time you hear a 'scientist' say the opposite, you are in the presence of someone who is being paid to lie, or is parroting something he knows little about."
On August 14, 1972, a two-column story appeared in the Times under a Devlin byline. The headline over the story read, "Pesticide Spokesmen Accused of 'Lying' on Higher Bird Count." According to the article, the accuser was Arbib, the editor of "American Birds." The story goes on to state that while the Foreword did not identify the alleged spokesmen accused of lying, Arbib furnished the reporter with the names of five persons intended to be covered by the accusation, three of whom are plaintiffs in this case. The Times story gave the five names with identifying information as to each. The three plaintiffs in this lawsuit are Dr. Robert H. White-Stevens, a professor of biology and chairman of the Bureau of Conservation at Rutgers University, Dr. Thomas H. Jukes, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, and Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, a professor of entomology at San Jose State College. The other two persons named in the story were Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, a Nobel Prize winner, and Dr. Donald A. Spencer, a retired ecologist and now a private consultant.
The Times story relates that not all those named could be reached for comment, but that those who were reached ridiculed the accusations as "emotional" and "hysterical," with Dr. Spencer being quoted as saying they were "almost libelous." The story concludes with quotations from the Foreword, including those referred to above, as well as paraphrasing of other portions.
The case was submitted to the jury without objection on the assumption that the plaintiffs were public figures. The story is clearly libelous. Buckley v. Littell, 539 F.2d 882 (2d Cir. 1976).
There is no doubt that the Times story accurately reported and correctly quoted from the Foreword in American Birds, although the headline was slightly off in accuracy. The jury found on credible evidence that the Times accurately reported the five names furnished by Arbib as being those referred to as liars in the Foreword.
The Times' position is that under these facts, the jury was not presented with clear and convincing proof that the article was published with actual malice and therefore could not have returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs. If this were all there is to the case, the court might be of a mind to grant defendant's motion. In fact, it might well have disposed of the litigation by granting the usual motion made at the end of the plaintiffs' case or at the end of the entire case. However, the events that transpired between the time Devlin read the Foreword and the publication of his story on August 14, 1972, require a denial of the motion.
In considering a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the court shall view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. O'Connor v. Pennsylvania R.R., 308 F.2d 911, 914 (2d Cir. 1962).
We have here a reporter of 25 years' experience who must have known from the outset that he was dealing with a libelous article. The Times has never contended that the story was not libelous. The reporter attended annual meetings of the Society, went on field trips, and had written several articles for the Society. He was not a novice as to the background of the story. Finally, his memory on the witness stand as to the events leading up to the publication of the story was abysmally ...