The Sun News reports that a South Carolina state court has awarded Scott Brandon $1.8 million in damages for defamation arising out of statements published on the Myrtle Beach Insider blog. Brandon, who is the head of an ad agency with offices in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, sued local businessman Donald Wizeman in April 2008, claiming that Wizeman was the author of Myrtle Beach Insider and that Wizeman had defamed him by publishing a June 2007 post calling him a "failed lawyer" and criticizing one of his ad agency's campaigns. Wizeman denied that he was the author of Myrtle Beach Insider, but admitted agreeing with its content.
The $1.8 million award came after Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein granted summary judgment in favor of Brandon after a hearing in September 2008. The CMLP has not obtained a copy or transcript of the judge's ruling, but she presumably found that no material issue of fact remained for a jury to decide and determined that Brandon was entitled to judgment as a matter of law (no small feat in a defamation case). Judge Goodstein then assigned a "special referee" to determine damages. In late January 2009, the referee awarded Brandon $800,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages.
There may have been some procedural glitches in the process, however. For one thing, Wizeman was not present at the summary judgment hearing in September and said in court filings that he did not receive notice that it was taking place, according to The Sun News. If this absence wasn't Wizeman's own fault, then it certainly casts doubt on the fairness of the court's determination on the merits of the lawsuit. In addition, at some point in the proceeding, the court also ruled that it would deem Wizeman the author of the disputed blog post despite his denials because he failed to respond to a discovery request that he admit or deny being the author. Wizeman, who initially represented himself but later hired a lawyer, maintains that he did not receive this discovery request either.
Wizeman filed an emergency motion for reconsideration and relief from the judgment, but the court denied his request in January, saying that Wizeman's motion did not raise any "novel legal issues for the court's consideration," according to The Sun News article. Wizeman filed a notice of appeal in February 2009, hoping that the claimed procedural defects will win him a reversal.
For the time being, however, this huge judgment stands as a chilling reminder of the risks involved in publishing online and an impetus to brush up on the basics of defamation law before hitting "submit."
You can monitor case developments through our database entry, Brandon v. Wizeman.