Does New Jersey Recognize the Presumed Damages Doctrine in Internet Defamation Claims?

In W.J.A. v. D.A., No. A-77-10 (May 16, 2012), the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the doctrine of presumed damages applies over the Internet.

That case surrounds Wayne Anderson (“Wayne”), a New Jersey man who was cleared of sexual abuse charges against his nephew, David Adams (“David”) (both fictitious names created by the Court).  Wayne was awarded $50,000.00 for defamation in the original suit, and nine years later David created a website that repeated the abuse claims with additional charges.  The site included Wayne’s name and address.

The creation of the website initiated the current case. However, because Wayne could only offer anguish and emotional injury as damages, the Law Division judge found those damages subjective and therefore insufficient to sustain a defamation claim. David was granted summary judgment.  However, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that Wayne could recover damages in a defamation suit without proving actual harm.  This is known as the “Presumed Damages Doctrine,” whereby a claimant may recover nominal damages expected when his reputation has been injured.  Reputational damage is often hard to prove, so under certain circumstances, it may be presumed, but the damages are generally nominal.

In that case, the Supreme Court held that the presumed damages doctrine would be recognized.  The judge noted that the doctrine acts as a procedural device to help the plaintiff’s claim survive dismissal.  Addressing the fact that the damages would be nominal, the Supreme Court noted that vindication is an important piece of any defamation claim and the doctrine acts as a tool by which the plaintiff is provided dignitary recourse.

Because the damages are presumed, it is hard for a jury to devise a uniform method of valuation.  That is why a plaintiff can only obtain nominal damages at trial, thereby precluding compensatory damages absent proof of actual harm.  Of course, the Plaintiff is free to seek to prove actual damages, which one would hope would be greater.  However, that is often not possible.

This case is important because it illustrates that New Jersey will recognize the doctrine of presumed damages, but recovery under the doctrine is limited.  The doctrine is a good tool for a plaintiff to use to defeat dismissal and obtain nominal damages when he cannot show actual harm.  This is generally the scenario in Internet defamation cases, in which the reputational harm that can be caused is extremely hard to measure.

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