As soon as the clerk in federal court read the first verdict finding actual malice in Nicole Eramo’s defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely, the UVA administrator crumpled against her attorney.
And as the clerk went on to read more than two dozen statements upon which the jury had to decide in the suit against Erdely, Rolling Stone and Wenner Media LLC, with only a few exceptions, the jurors found actual malice on each count November 4.
“Today was a really good day,” said Eramo attorney Libby Locke with her client at her side, along with Eramo’s supporters. “We said all along Rolling Stone published a false article.”
Rolling Stone attorney Elizabeth McNamara declined to comment. Erdely remained composed in the courtroom, but she was weeping as she went out the back door of the U.S. District Court.
The decision came after 16 days in court and two and a half days of jury deliberation in Eramo’s $7.5 million suit stemming from the November 2014 Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The story, which recounted the tale of Jackie, who claimed she was gang raped at Phi Kappa Psi, quickly unraveled, and by April 2015, after a searing examination by Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Rolling Stone retracted the story.
Eramo, who was in charge of handling victims of sexual assault and the Sexual Assault Misconduct Board at UVA, filed suit the next month, contending that the story portrayed her as a callous and indifferent administrator, according to Erdely’s preconceived storyline.
A judge earlier had ruled that Eramo is a public figure, and the jury had to determine whether Rolling Stone acted with actual malice in its publication of the story and three specific statements that Eramo contends are false: that she discouraged Jackie from sharing her story, that she said, “Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school,” and that she had a “non reaction” when Jackie told her in April 2014 that two other young women had been gang raped at the same fraternity.
Erdely faced the most counts of defamation, and the jury found all of the statements actionable, but did not find the “rape school” statement was published with actual malice.
The jury also believed that in post-publication interviews on the “Brian Lehrer Show” and Slate in November 2014, Erdely made statements with actual malice about Eramo, as well as in an e-mail to the Washington Post November 30, 2014.
Rolling Stone and Wenner Media were found to have acted with actual malice when the magazine republished the story December 5, 2014, with an editor’s note saying that it no longer found Jackie credible, although the jury did not believe the original November 19, 2014, story was published with actual malice.
After the verdict, Rolling Stone issued a statement and apology to Eramo.
“For almost 50 years, Rolling Stone has aimed to produce journalism with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a strong humanistic point of view,” it said. “In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again. We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo.”
Legal expert David Heilberg, who is not connected to the case, says, “Obviously the jury thought it was more than pure negligence.”
He compares it to walking toward a goal. “The difference between negligence and actual malice is with negligence, you’re walking toward a goal and ignoring everything else. With actual malice, you’re walking toward a goal with blinders on and you’re not using your peripheral vision.”
Heilberg also says, “I find it interesting that in exactly the time where we’ve set new lows in our political discourse, the jury could find actual malice.”
The jury adjourned for the day and will return Monday for the damages portion of the trial, in which it hears testimony about how the article affected Eramo and awards some or all of her $7.5 million claim.