On October 6, 2016, through a team of attorneys led by Lin Wood, Burke Ramsey sued Dr. Werner Spitz for defamation. He filed the lawsuit in Michigan’s Third Circuit Court for Wayne County. You may view the complaint here.
If (1) Mr. Ramsey can prove his complaint’s allegations, (2) Dr. Spitz or his insurance company hires competent and experienced counsel to defend him, and (3) Dr. Spitz or his insurance company can agree to the settlement terms Mr. Ramsey will demand, Mr. Ramsey and Dr. Spitz should settle this case. If Mr. Ramsey and Dr. Spitz don’t settle the case, Mr. Ramsey will probably win at trial.
Last month, Dr. Spitz accused Mr. Ramsey of killing his sister, JonBenét Patricia Ramsey, in 1996. A news media company published his defamatory statements. Dr. Spitz’s accusation is defamatory per se. It caused reasonable people who believed it to think less of Mr. Ramsey than they did before they heard or read it. Millions of reasonable people probably heard or read and believed Dr. Spitz’s defamatory accusation.
Dr. Spitz’s statements will be entitled to First Amendment protection if the trial court judge holds:
(1) Mr. Ramsey was a public figure for all purposes when Dr. Spitz published the statements; or
(2) Mr. Ramsey was a limited purpose public figure for the purposes of public debate about who killed his sister because Mr. Ramsey did something to invite public comment or debate on whether he killed his sister; or
(3) the statements Dr. Spitz published about Mr. Ramsey involved matters of public concern.
If Dr. Spitz’s attorneys claim his statements are entitled to First Amendment protection, the trial court judge will probably agree. This will require Mr. Ramsey to prove Dr. Spitz published the statements with actual malice to win a jury trial.
To prove Dr. Spitz published the statements with actual malice, Mr. Ramsey will have to prove (1) he did not kill his sister and (2) Dr. Spitz either (a) knew Mr. Ramsey did not kill his sister or (b) recklessly disregarded whether his allegations Mr. Ramsey killed his sister were true or false.
Mr. Ramsey’s complaint contains ample evidence proving he didn’t kill his sister. That evidence was a matter of public record before Dr. Spitz defamed him. Most reasonable people and forensics experts will agree the evidence available to Dr. Spitz before he defamed Mr. Ramsey clearly and convincingly proves Mr. Ramsey didn’t kill his sister.
Dr. Spitz could still try to prove Mr. Ramsey killed his sister to prove a truth defense. If Dr. Spitz proves to a reasonable jury that Mr. Ramsey probably killed his sister, then he will defeat Mr. Ramsey’s defamation claim. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation. But it would be imprudent for Dr. Spitz to try to prove Mr. Ramsey killed his sister.
If the trial court judge holds Mr. Ramsey must prove Dr. Spitz defamed him with actual malice to prevail, then Dr. Spitz won’t need to prove a truth defense to defeat Mr. Ramsey’s claim. Instead, Mr. Ramsey will have to prove Dr. Spitz recklessly disregarded evidence that proves he didn’t kill his sister and Dr. Spitz should have had serious doubts about whether Mr. Ramsey killed his sister.
If he can prove the allegations in his complaint are true, Mr. Ramsey will prove (1) Dr. Spitz had no grounds to reasonably conclude Mr. Ramsey killed his sister; (2) Dr. Spitz had no grounds to reasonably conclude the legal professionals, law enforcement professionals, and forensics professionals who determined there was no probable cause to bring charges against Mr. Ramsey were incompetent or corrupt; and (3) Dr. Spitz published the defamatory statements to promote himself for his own pecuniary benefit. If Mr. Ramsey proves these facts, he will win a jury trial against Dr. Spitz.
Facts alone will not determine this trial’s outcome though. The parties’ relative likeability and credibility levels will play key roles. Mr. Ramsey is a much more sympathetic figure than Dr. Spitz. Most jurors will like Mr. Ramsey more than Dr. Spitz. Most jurors will trust Mr. Ramsey more than Dr. Spitz. Most jurors will want to side with Mr. Ramsey over Dr. Spitz.
In addition to several skilled litigators who have experience working on high stakes, actual malice defamation claims, Dr. Spitz’s defense team should include at least one affable, charismatic, credible, and experienced trial lawyer. He will need a trial lawyer with these qualities to stand a chance against Lin Wood if the parties fail to reach a settlement and the case goes to trial.
Mr. Ramsey will probably demand a public retraction from Dr. Spitz and millions of dollars to settle this case. If Dr. Spitz refuses to publish a public retraction and he and his insurance company refuse to pay Mr. Ramsey millions of dollars to settle this case, it will probably go to trial.
Most juries will find Mr. Ramsey suffered millions of dollars worth of damages as a direct result of Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements. Dr. Spitz authorized a major news media company to publish his defamatory statements. He knew or should have known his statements would be republished nationally, to millions of people.
Mr. Ramsey could argue he is entitled to no less than $10 per person who heard or read about Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements. If Mr. Ramsey proves at least 1 million people heard or read about Dr. Spitz’s statements, he should be able to prove he suffered at least $10 million in reputational damages.
In addition to his reputational damages, Mr. Ramsey will be entitled to damages for the mental harm resulting from being publicly accused by Dr. Spitz, via a reputable news media company, of killing his sister. Reasonable jurors should agree that Mr. Ramsey’s mental harm damages are worth least $10,000 per day between the day Dr. Spitz published the defamatory statements and the day he publicly retracted them or the day a jury finds him liable for publishing them.
Mr. Ramsey will also be entitled to economic damages if he incurred or will incur any reasonable costs or expenses, other than his legal fees and costs, trying to reasonably mitigate the harm Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements caused to his reputation or mental and physical wellbeing. If Mr. Ramsey sought or seeks medical treatment from psychiatrists as a direct result of Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements, his medical expenses will be recoverable economic damages. If he retained or retains public relations or marketing professionals to limit or decrease the harm Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements caused his reputation, the money he spent or will spend on those professionals will be recoverable economic damages. The money Mr. Ramsey will need to spend to remove republications of Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements from the Internet or to persuade major Internet search companies to remove defamatory webpages from their search results will also be recoverable economic damages.
If a jury finds Dr. Spitz knew the defamatory statements he published were false but he published them nonetheless to gain attention for himself at Mr. Ramsey’s expense, then the jury will probably assess punitive damages against Dr. Spitz. The punitive damages will probably be double or triple the amount of Mr. Ramsey’s reasonable reputational, mental harm, and economic damages.
Dr. Spitz probably won’t be able to discharge an actual malice defamation judgment in bankruptcy court. See 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6). He or his insurance company will probably have to pay the judgment one way or another if he loses an actual malice defamation trial. As a strategic move, Dr. Spitz’s attorneys might want to concede that Mr. Ramsey was a private figure and Dr. Spitz’s defamatory statements did not involve a matter of public concern. Doing this will increase the likelihood that Mr. Ramsey will win a jury trial. But it will also increase the likelihood Dr. Spitz will be able to discharge a multimillion-dollar judgment via a bankruptcy filing if he loses. Unless an early settlement can be negotiated, Dr. Spitz will benefit from taking steps to preserve his right to discharge a massive judgment against him.
If this case goes to trial, I predict Mr. Ramsey will prove Dr. Spitz defamed him with actual malice and a jury will award him at least $15 million in damages. Dr. Spitz’s defense counsel will be wise to advise him to promptly publish a public retraction statement and pay Mr. Ramsey to settle the case this year.
By Ed Hopkins, HopkinsWay PLLC. | © HopkinsWay PLLC 2016. All rights reserved.