Thursday, September 4, 2008
Scott Wins Some, Loses Some in Libel Actions
By ROGER M. GRACE
Los Angeles attorney Joseph Scott had mixed results in his battles against Los Angeles newspapers.
The skirmishes were with the Los Angeles Times and with a worthy, scrappy, long-forgotten daily known as the Los Angeles Record. He was at loggerheads with the Times because its owner/publisher Harrison Gray Otis wouldn’t forgive him for representing the McNamara Brothers in connection with the 1910 dynamiting of the Times Building, causing the deaths of 31 persons. His quarrel with the Record stemmed from his readying to act as its advocate in litigation but backing out when a conflict emerged.
•He sued the Times, as I’ve mentioned, for accusing him of prodding a client into suing her wealthy husband for divorce even though she didn’t really want to do it. A jury on March 10, 1916 awarded him $37,500 (roughly $710,000 in terms of today’s dollars)—$30,000 of the sum in punitive damages.
Cecilla Rasmussen’s Nov. 28, 1999 Times column recites:
“The triumphant Scott returned to his office to find a congratulatory telegram from Gov. Hiram W. Johnson, one of Otis’ archenemies. A copy of the check signed by Otis would hang on Scott’s library wall for the rest of his life.”
The California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment on Oct. 8, 1919. Otis had died two years earlier, ending the Times’ barrage of brickbats aimed at Scott.
•Scott successfully represented Edwin T. Earl in his libel suit against the Times. Earl was owner/publisher of the morning Tribune and evening Express—denominated by the Times in its Dec. 3, 1914 editorial the “Morning Sodomite and Evening Degenerate.” Earl had criticized the Times for publishing the names of 31 men arrested for solicitations of homosexual sex. The editorial giving rise to the libel action alludes to Earl’s “purchased defense” of the defendants.
Scott on Nov. 27, 1916, obtained a jury award for his client of $30,000 (about $560,000 now), all but $5,000 of which was in actual damages.
Earl died in 1919, and his executors stood in his stead in defending the judgment. On Feb. 25, 1921, the California Supreme Court affirmed, after whacking off the $5,000 punitive-damage award. This was compelled, the opinion says, because three of the jurors who had voted for that award had not concurred in the award of compensatory damages.
The high court put its imprimatur on this characterization of the Times editorial contained in Earl’s brief:
“It had the strongest possible tendency to ruin the plaintiff’s reputation personally by holding him out as the protector and champion of the lowest class of degenerates and the most disgusting types of degeneracy, and to destroy his standing as a newspaper man by charging him with taking hire from those sodomites for defense.”
•Scott sued the Record for $50,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages based on its May 1, 1917 report of a speech by the newspaper’s lawyer, Griffith Jones, who was running for Los Angeles city attorney. (Jones lost to incumbent Albert Lee Stephens, later a judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
Earlier, the Record had lined up Scott to represent it in a libel action against it by ex-Police Chief Clarence Snively; Scott withdrew, as he was ethically obliged to, when he learned that Earl wanted him to sue the Record for calling him a “boss” and “skunk.” Scott represented Earl in the action against the Record…which was wholly unrelated to the Snively suit.
Jones was quoted as saying in his speech:
“And speaking of lawyers. I see that the Hon. Joseph Scott, a most ethical lawyer, is for Stephens. Let me tell you what he did to the Record.
“Joe Scott was employed by the Record, the paper that I represent, in the defense of a libel suit. He accepted that case, took the retainer, and the Record went to Mr. Scott, laid all of its evidence before him, and said, ‘Here is our case. We rely on you absolutely, as you are a man of integrity, honor and standing in the community.’
“Then what happened?
“I’ll tell you what happened.
“E.T. Earl came to him and talked with him, and then Joseph Scott told the Record that he could not represent the paper, that now he is special counsel in Earl’s suit against the Record.
“If that isn’t dastardly, I don’t know what is. If that isn’t a betrayal of trust, I don’t know what is. And every word I have told you is the truth.”
In Earl’s action against the Record: the jury on Nov. 30, 1917, rendered a verdict in favor of the Record.
In Scott’s own action against the Record: the lawyer won a jury verdict on Dec. 10, 1917. Damages were set at $1.
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