Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc.

PETITIONER: Dun & Bradstreet, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Greenmoss Builders, Inc.
LOCATION: The D&B Corporation

DOCKET NO.: 83-18
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Vermont Supreme Court

CITATION: 472 US 749 (1985)
REARGUED: Oct 03, 1984
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1985
ARGUED: Mar 21, 1984

ADVOCATES:
Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr. - on behalf of Petitioner
Thomas F. Heilmann - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case

Dun and Bradstreet, a credit reporting agency, mistakenly reported to some of its subscribers that the construction contractor Greenmoss Builders had voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. The president of Greenmoss quickly learned about the erroneous report, requested Bradstreet to correct its error, and asked for the list of subscribers who received the report. Bradstreet refused to release the names on the list, but issued a correction to its five subscribers who received the original report. The correction stated that actually a former employee of Greenmoss had filed for bankruptcy and that Greenmoss Builders "continued in business as usual." Greenmoss was dissatisfied with the correction and again asked for the list. When Bradstreet refused a second time, Greenmoss filed suit against it for defamation in a Vermont state court. The court discovered that a 17-year-old high student interning for Bradstreet had caused the error and the jury awarded $350,000 to Greenmoss in compensatory and punitive damages. Bradstreet claimed that contrary to the Supreme Court's ruling in Gertz v. Robert Welch, the trial judge told the jury that it could award punitive damages even if Bradford did not make mistakes intentionally or out of recklessness. The court granted Bradstreet's motion for retrial, but the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Gertz only applied to cases involving defamation by the media.

Question

If a trial judge does not instruct the jury to only award punitive damages caused by intentional slander or reckless conduct, can a jury still award punitive damages to a plaintiff defamed by private speech?

Media for Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 1984 in Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Dun & Bradstreet against Greenmoss Builders, Incorporated.

Mr. Garrett, I think you may proceed when you're ready.

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

The issue before you today is whether the First Amendment's limitations on presumed and punitive damages apply to non-media defendants in actions for defamation.

Petitioner Dun & Bradstreet has urged the Court to confirm that the First Amendment protects all speech against the award of presumed and punitive damages, absent actual malice.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Garrett, would suggest that we would be ratifying what someone else has already said is correct.

Who is that someone else?

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr.:

Fully recognizing, Your Honor, the footnotes in several opinions dealing with private defamation, we believe that this Court's opinion in Gertz versus Robert Welch leads to the inescapable conclusion that on the one hand the states have no substantial interest in awarding presumed and punitive damages against any speech when balanced against the First Amendment protections.

We believe that's why the word "confirm" is appropriate.

Warren E. Burger:

I'm not sure I track what you mean when you say private defamation.

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr.:

Your Honor, I agree with you.

I think in this Court's opinions "private defamation" has been used to signify the status of the plaintiff, from a public figure, to a public official, to a private figure.

But defamation by definition includes a publication to a third party.

I think Your Honor is correct that there really is no such thing as private defamation.

When I speak of private defamation in this case, I am really referring to a private party, not a public figure or a public official.

We believe a ruling which would--

Warren E. Burger:

I thought perhaps you had it the other way around, that there is some concept that a private party does not share all the protections that all other persons share under the First Amendment.

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr.:

--Absolutely not, Your Honor.

We believe that the decisions of this Court recognize that the First Amendment is a freedom which is enjoyed by all, and that this Court doesn't make distinctions based on the speaker or his message in connection with defamation cases.

We believe that a ruling recognizing that neither presumed nor punitive damages could be allowed, absent actual malice, would do two very important things.

First, it would recognize the very legitimate and important state interest in protecting the reputational interests of citizens by allowing private defamation plaintiffs to recover damages for actual injury.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, that isn't the result of any limitation.

That's the result of the basic state general damage award.

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr.:

I'm sorry, Justice Rehnquist?

William H. Rehnquist:

I thought you were saying the reasons why we should have this limitation on the states' authority are two, and one is the state ought to do what it isn't limited to do by this limitation.

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr.:

No, Your Honor.

My point was that if you recognize the rule which we suggest in our case you would do two different things: One, you would recognize that the states have an interest in protecting the reputations of their citizens, and that interest is satisfied by awarding damages for actual injury.

The second point is that it would also recognize that, absent actual malice, the states have no interest in awarding either presumed or punitive damages, and that when balanced against the First Amendment freedoms it precludes such an award.

Let me emphasize that Dun & Bradstreet seeks only the same result that would be required in actions brought against newspapers, television, syndicated columnists.

Whatever the term "media" means, we believe that all citizens are entitled to that freedom under the First Amendment.