In affirming libel award, SJC strikes blow to protection of sources

The Supreme Judicial Court yesterday issued its decision in Ayash v. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the outcome was a blow to the news media. The SJC upheld the trial judge’s entry of default judgment against the Boston Globe because of the Globe’s refusal to reveal the identities of confidential sources. Based on that default judgment, a jury awarded damages against the Globe of $2.1 million — $300,000 for economic damages and $1.8 million for emotional distress – which the SJC also upheld.

The lawsuit, in which the MNPA participated as amicus, followed from the discovery that two patients in an experimental breast cancer treatment study at Dana-Farber had mistakenly been given an overdose of a toxic chemotherapy drug. One of the patients, Globe health columnist Betsy A. Lehman, died. The plaintiff, Dr. Lois J. Ayash, an investigator in the study, sued Dana-Farmer, Dr. David M. Livingston, the Boston Globe and Globe reporter Richard A. Knox. She accused the Globe of libel and defamation, and sued Knox for intentional interference with contractual relations and for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

During discovery, Ayash sought to compel the Globe to reveal the identities of its sources. Concluding that the sources’ identities were central to the plaintiff’s claims, the judge ordered their disclosure. When the Globe continued to protect their identities, the judge imposed a series of escalating fines. After an interim appeal and remand, Ayash again sought to compel the Globe to disclose its sources. When the Globe continued to refuse, Ayash asked for sanctions. As a sanction, the judge ordered that judgments of liability enter in favor of Ayash against the Globe and Knox. Because his earlier monetary sanctions had not succeeded in securing the Globe’s compliance, the judge reasoned, the alternative sanction of default judgment was warranted. With liability determined by default, the case was submitted to a jury for assessment of damages. The jury came back with an award against the Globe of $2.1 million.

On appeal, the SJC concluded that the judge had not abused his discretion in entering the default judgment.

“At the time of the judge’s ruling, the overdose incidents had occurred over six years previously. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Knox continued to receive or collect information pertaining to the overdoses from these sources that would justify the continued concealment of their identities. The judge concluded that their identities, and information that they potentially could reveal, bore directly on the plaintiff’s claims against Knox and Dana-Farber. …

“Over a period of years, the judge had ordered the Globe defendants to comply with the plaintiff’s requests for discovery of this information, to no avail. The Globe defendants made a deliberate choice to protect Knox’s sources and to forgo their (potentially meritorious) defenses to the claims asserted against them rather than obey the judge’s orders. The judge was not trying to punish the Globe defendants. He clearly felt that he had no alternative method of enabling the plaintiff to obtain the information she needed, and he left open to the Globe the option to remove the default by complying. The question for our review is whether the judge’s order constituted an abuse of the “broad measure of discretion” afforded him. See Sinnott v. Boston Retirement Bd., 402 Mass. 581, 585, cert. denied, 488 U.S. 980 (1988). We conclude that it did not.”

Having affirmed the entry of default judgment against the Globe, the SJC turned to the jury’s award of damages.

“A plaintiff in a successful defamation case is entitled only to fair compensation for actual damages, including emotional distress and harm to reputation (and any special damages which have been pleaded and proved). … Although the damages awarded the plaintiff for the defaulted claims against the Globe defendants may appear high, they were based on evidence that the Globe articles impugning the plaintiff affected her career and caused her a great deal of emotional and psychological anguish. … The judge found no basis on which to overturn the awards as excessive, and neither do we.”

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