Torts – Libel and Slander – Effect of an Unsustained Plea of Truth
Plaintiff, superintendent of a state training school for boys, was removed from that office by his superior in the state department of social welfare. The defendant corporation, publisher and owner of two newspapers in the state, published certain articles in its newspapers relating to plaintiff’s conduct in office, his management of the school, and his removal from office. Plaintiff brought action of libel. Defendant, in addition to a plea of general issue, filed a plea of truth. The trial court instructed the jury that where truth is pleaded as a defense, but is not successful, such plea will sustain an award of punitive damages at the discretion of the jury. The jury found for the plaintiff, awarding $25,000 which included punitive damages. On appeal defendant contended that an unsuccessful plea of truth could be considered evidence of actual malice allowing assessment of punitive damages only if it appeared to the jury that the defense was made in bad faith, maliciously, or without proper motives. Held, reversed on other grounds. In an action of libel the plea of truth of itself constitutes a reaffirmation of the libel and may be regarded by the jury as showing actual malice and warranting an award of punitive damages. Marley v. Providence Journal Co., (R.I. 1957) 134 A. (2d) 180.