U.S. Supreme Court Gandia v. Pettingill, 222 U.S. 452 (1912)
Gandia v. Pettingill
Argued December 14, 1911
Decided January 9, 1912
222 U.S. 452
ERROR TO THE DISTRICT COURT
OF THE UNITED STATES FOR PORTO RICO
In the absence of express malice or excess, publication of actual facts is not libelous, and in case of mere excess without express malice, the only liability is for damages attributable to the excess, and refusal of the trial court to charge to this effect is error.
Quaere whether attributing to a person conduct that is lawful can be libelous.
The stricter practice is to note the exceptions before the jury retires, but if all the exceptions are noted in open court after jury returns and no wrong is suffered, an exception will not be sustained on that ground.
4 P.R.F. 383 reversed.
The facts are stated in the opinion.
MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is an action for libels, and comes here upon a bill of exceptions after a verdict for the plaintiff. The alleged libels consist of a series of articles in a Porto Rican newspaper,
La Correspondencia. These articles stated that the plaintiff, Pettingill, while United States Attorney for Porto Rico, carried on a private practice also, and even acted as a lawyer on behalf of persons bringing suit against the government of Porto Rico. It seems that, if the plaintiff had been an officer of the local government, he would have been forbidden the practice by the local law, and the articles convey the idea that, if the practice is not prohibited also by the law for United States officials, it ought to be, especially as the island is charged with a salary for the attorney. The conduct of Mr. Pettingill in the above particulars is described as a monstrous immorality, a scandal, etc., etc. In the view that we take, it is not necessary to state the charges here in detail, but it should be observed that, in the declaration, the plaintiff alleged that, while United States attorney, he had a large private practice, and implied, as in his evidence he stated, that a part of this practice consisted of suits against the local government. So there was no issue on the matter of fact.
So far as the facts were concerned, the publication of them alone was not libelous. For, apart from the question whether attributing to the plaintiff conduct that was lawful, as the plaintiff says, could be a libel ( Homer v. Engelhardt, 117 Mass. 539), he was a public officer in whose course of action connected with his office the citizens of Porto Rico had a serious interest, and anything bearing on such action was a legitimate subject of statement and comment. It was so, at least, in the absence of express malice -- a phrase needing further analysis, although not for the purposes of this case. Therefore, the only questions open for consideration were the motives of the publication and whether the comment went beyond reasonable limits, which, of course, the defendant denied. But, so far as we see from reading the charge, the judge did not approach the case from this point of view. For, after saying to the jury
that fair comment upon the actions of public officials was privileged, he went on:
"But you are instructed that, in this case . . . , [the articles] are what is known in law as libelous per se. . . . Therefore, in any event, you must find for the plaintiff upon that issue, and give him such damages as you may believe, from all the facts and circumstances in the case, he is entitled to,"
and after that proceeded to direct them only as to the conditions for finding punitive damages also. It is at least doubtful whether this instruction meant that the comments were excessive as matter of law. It rather would seem from the previous explanations given to the jury of the independence of United States officials notwithstanding the source of their salaries, and the instructions that the plaintiff's acts were lawful, that the defendant, in order to justify himself, would have to prove that they were wrong in law, and that his inability to do so might be considered as aggravation of the damages to be allowed, that the latter considerations alone were the ground for what we have quoted from the charge.
However this may be, what we have said is enough to show that the mind of the jury was not directed to what was the point of the case. We do not see how, making reasonable allowance for the somewhat more exuberant expressions of meridional speech, it could be said as matter of law that the comments set out in the declaration went beyond the permitted line, and we think it at least doubtful whether the plaintiff would not have got all if not more than all that he could ask if he had been allowed to go to the jury on that issue. In the absence of express malice of excess, the defendant was not liable at all, and in the case of mere excess without express malice, the damages, if any, to which he was entitled were, at most, only such as could be attributed to the supposed excess. But what really hurt the plaintiff was not the comment, but the fact. The witnesses for the plaintiff said that the people of Porto
Rico considered the acts charged immoral, and the statute referred to showed that such was their conception of public duty. It was peculiarly necessary, therefore, to instruct the jury that, so far as the publication of facts disapproved by the community was concerned, the plaintiff could not recover for it, however technically lawful his conduct might have been, except as we have stated above. Instructions were requested on the point, and the refusal to give them was excepted to, as also was the corresponding charge. Without nice criticism of the form of the requests, it is enough to say that they were so nearly correct as to call the judge's attention to the matter and to require a different explanation of the defendant's rights.
An exception was taken to the judge's sending the jury out before the counsel for the defendant had stated all of his exceptions to the charge. The judge had told the counsel that he would not instruct the jury otherwise than as he had, and he allowed all the exceptions to be taken in open court after the jury had retired. No doubt it is the stricter practice to note the exceptions before the jury retires (the judge, of course, having power to prevent counsel from making it an opportunity for a last word to them). Phelps v. Mayer, 15 How. 160. But, in this case, they were noted at the trial, in open court, United States v. Breitling, 20 How. 252, and, in the circumstances stated, the defendant suffered no wrong, so that we should not sustain an exception upon this ground.