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CHARLES NEWSON v. AARON E. HENRY AND RUTH ARMSTRONG ROSS

NOVEMBER 23, 1983

CHARLES NEWSON
v.
AARON E. HENRY AND RUTH ARMSTRONG ROSS, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF L. A. ROSS, JR., DECEASED



EN BANC

PRATHER, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

Aaron E. Henry and L. A. Ross, Jr. *fn1 filed defamation suits in the Circuit Court of Coahoma County based upon a newspaper article written by Wilson F. Minor and published in the Capital Reporter Newspaper. The article quoted comments about Henry and Ross made by Charles Newson. Newson, Minor, and the newspaper were all made defendants; however, upon pleas of improper venue jurisdiction, the actions against Minor and the newspaper were abated in Coahoma County for transfer to Hinds County.

A jury verdict in the amount of $2,500.00 for punitive damages only was returned against Newson for libelous conduct in each case, but no actual damages were awarded. From judgment, both parties appeal.

 Newson, appellant, asserts that the judgment cannot avail because (1) the slanderous statements were not published in Coahoma County; (2) because malice of Newson was not proven against the plaintiffs who are public figures; and, (3) because punitive damages cannot be supported without an award of actual damages.

 The plaintiffs cross-appeal assigning as error the trial

 court's refusal to grant a new trial as to actual damages only, or in the alternative, an additur.

 I.

 Dr. Aaron E. Henry is a black businessman, and a pharmacist, of Clarksdale. *fn2 He was former co-chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee and on the National Board of

 Directors and Mississippi president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Henry has been and is politically active in support of, or opposition to, political issues, organizations, and candidates for public office. In 1979, Dr. Henry was himself elected to the Mississippi State Legislature. In his testimony Dr. Henry admitted that he is a public figure.

 L. A. Ross, Jr. is a 74 year old retired farmer of Coahoma County who served as sheriff of that county for one term, from 1960 through 1963. In 1967, Ross ran an unsuccessful campaign for reelection for sheriff; however, upon defeat, he left political life totally. Since 1967, Ross has farmed to some extent, but upon amputation of his leg, and confinement to a wheel chair, Ross' activities have been basically confined to his wood-working shop at his home. In his two campaigns for sheriff, Ross had the support of Dr. Henry.

 Another personality in this lawsuit is Charles Newson, a Clarksdale auto parts dealer. Newson was a participant with Henry in political activities since 1965. Henry was instrumental in securing federal funding for Coahoma Opportunities, Inc., (C.O.I.), and in Newson's becoming employed there. While so employed, Newson sought Henry's advice about

 seeking political office; Henry advised Newson that such activity was prohibited by the Hatch Act while he was employed by the federal government.

 Upon announcement of Newson's seeking a political office, the Directors of C.O.I. offered Newson the opportunity of resigning from his job or withdrawing from the race. Newson declined to do either, and he was fired. Subsequently, Newson asked Henry to assist him with the Directors in securing reemployment; Henry declined stating that he had personally advised him otherwise prior to the firing. Newson's reaction was described as being "very angry." The record does not reflect the time of this occurrence, except that it preceded the newspaper article involved in this lawsuit.

 Prior to June 19, 1980, Charles Newson read an article in the Capital Reporter attributing critical remarks to Dr. Henry about Charles Evers. *fn3 Upon reading that article, Charles Newson telephoned Wilson (Bill) F. Minor, the newspaper reporter at the Capital Reporter, and made representation to him that Dr. Henry accepted $3,500.00 to "deliver the black vote in Coahoma County" to L. A. Ross, a candidate for sheriff in 1968. *fn4

 Newson testified that Minor was to show him the proposed

 article before printing. The stated amount and the date were erroneous. However, he admitted that the article otherwise was written substantially as he represented to Minor. The entire text of the article appears in Appendix A to this opinion.

 Minor did not know Newson prior to this phone call. He attempted to contact Henry once to discuss the alleged improper

 activity, but was unable to do so. Moreover, he did not attempt to locate Ross at all in order to confirm the story, nor did he use any other means of investigation to verify it before publication on June 19, 1980.

 Henry and Ross sought retraction from Minor and Newson, but their efforts failed. After publication, Newson allegedly made such comments as: "I've got him now" and "I tore him up."

 During trial, there was testimony which indicated that Newson's motive in divulging the story to Minor was to harm Henry because of Henry's failure to aid in Newson's reemployment with C.O.I.

 II.

 The appellant first contends that the alleged slanderous statements were not published in Coahoma County, and that this was an element of the plaintiff's substantive cause of action.

 Newson claims that publication to a third party in Coahoma County is necessary to be proven. Newson telephoned from Coahoma County to a third party, Minor, in Hinds County. Minor wrote the spoken words and published them in Jackson. The newspaper was circulated over a wide area, including Coahoma and Hinds Counties via the Capital Reporter.

 However, Henry and Ross did not have to prove publication in any particular county in order to recover on the merits of their claim. They did have to prove that the first publication occurred in Coahoma County in order to fix venue in Coahoma County.

 The applicable rule is that the author of the defamation is liable for any secondary publication which is the natural consequence of the author's original action. 53 C.J.S. Libel and Slander 85 (1948).

 Newson was well aware of the proposed publication and was to have approved the content. He knew the natural consequence of his telephone call to the reporter and expected the republication

 of his words. We find no merit to this argument.

 IIIA.

 The plaintiffs' failure to meet their burden of proof in establishing malice in this defamation suit is ...


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