A federal jury’s recent verdict that Rolling Stone defamed a former University of Virginia dean in its now-debunked article about a brutal gang rape on campus suggests that the magazine could lose a separate defamation suit stemming from the same article.
UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where Rolling Stone reported in its 2014 “A Rape on Campus” story that the assault took place, is seeking $25 million in damages in a libel suit set to go to trial in October 2017.
Yesterday, the jury awarded $3 million in damages to Nicole Eramo, concluding that her emotional distress resulting from the defamatory article should cost both the story’s author, Sabrina Erdely, and Rolling Stone several million dollars.
During testimony heard Monday, Eramo said her life and her work as a sexual assault prevention advocate suffered tremendously after the article’s publication.
“I’ve always known I’m not the person in the article—that’s why we’re here today,” Eramo told the jury. “But it’s hard to get back to where I was.”
She also said she endured hundreds of threatening emails, lost her title as associate dean (and her sense of self with it, despite retaining an administrative position at the university), and suggested that her breast cancer diagnosis worsened after the article was published, according to The Washington Post. Earlier in the fall of 2014, prior to the story’s release, doctors had detected early stages of a tumor in her breast. They later discovered that the cancer had metastasized, and Eramo underwent a double mastectomy a month after the article’s publication, followed by chemotherapy as well as further hospitalization in connection with her chemo treatment.
At issue in Phi Kappa Psi’s defamation suit against Rolling Stone is whether the judge will conclude that the fraternity is a “public figure,” or even a “limited-purpose public figure” like Eramo was. Being a public figure necessitates a harder-to-prove, “actual malice” standard in defamation suits that doesn’t apply to private plaintiffs in similar suits.
“The fraternity is surely hoping the judge in its case will declare it to be a private figure not subject to the actual malice standard, but in light of the verdict obtained by Ms. Eramo, it now has some assurance that its own case may succeed even if it is declared a public figure,” Lee Berlik, a Virginia-based attorney who specializes in defamation law, told The Daily Beast.
Yet the fact that Phi Kappa Psi is an institution rather than a human being could limit damages if the fraternity won the defamation suit, according to Berlik.
“As an institution, it does not suffer emotional distress, mental anguish, or humiliation,” he said, all of which factored prominently in the jury’s decision to award Dean Eramo $3 million in damages—half of the $7.5 million that she sought in her lawsuit.
While the fraternity’s $25 million suit seems like a bigger deal, what a plaintiff is seeking has no bearing on what the jury ultimately awards in the end, Berlik noted.
One can see how it will be more difficult for a fraternity, which is analogous to a corporation, to prove that it was humiliated and suffered $25 million worth of damages.
“The jury will be looking at economic losses that the fraternity has incurred, such as a precipitous drop in membership,” Berlin said.
A lawyer for the fraternity did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.