Jury: Shirvell must pay $4.5 million for defamation

Former University of Michigan student government president Chris Armstrong prevailed Aug. 16 in his federal defamation suit against former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell, as the jury awarded Armstrong $4.5 million in damages.

Armstrong, who was represented by Bloomfield Hills civil attorney Deborah Gordon, claimed Shirvell inflicted intentional emotional harm on his blog in 2010, while Armstrong was in his senior year.

Shirvell attacked Armstrong for his “radical homosexual agenda,” calling Armstrong “Satan’s representative on the student assembly” and a “privileged pervert.” He also accused Armstrong of getting minors to drink alcohol and trying to recruit others to become homosexuals. [For a complete rundown of Shirvell’s acts, click here.]

The day before the verdict was reached, the Detroit Free Press reported that “Shirvell questioned himself on the witness stand for more than an hour Wednesday [Aug. 15], trying to convince the jury he was upset by Armstrong’s push for gender-neutral housing at U-M. Shirvell graduated in 2002.

“‘My blog was political speech,’ Shirvell testified. ‘I viewed my blog as a movement to get Mr. Armstrong to resign. I personally felt Mr. Armstrong was too radical for the position.’”

Gordon told The Michigan Daily that she doubts Shirvell’s plans to appeal the verdict will be realized.

“He’s not going to win his appeal. It’s just another waste of time just like this trial was. This should never have occurred, because he just should have retracted these statements a long time” ago, she said.

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MSC reinstates defamation award against pastor and church

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
The Bible
Exodus 20:16 (New King James Version)

David R. Williams is the pastor of Mount Hope Church and International Outreach Ministries in Lansing.

It’s what some would call a megachurch: a large, architecturally impressive building with an ample parking lot; flags representing almost every nation on the planet flapping beside a main entrance; a congregation numbering in the thousands and an ambitious outreach ministry.

Williams and his church have had their share of controversy.

A few years back, the church bought the same time slot on the same day on all of Lansing’s major television stations. This was done so Williams could preach to a presumably wide audience about “end time.” This strategy was well-received by some and not by others, who were upset that Williams had pre-empted the game shows and situation comedy reruns they usually watched.

In 2008, backers of gay and lesbian marriages, angered by the church’s stance on such matters, protested during a Sunday service. This prompted a pair of Lansing lawmakers, including one who represents the district where the church is located, to introduce legislation dealing with disrupting church services.

More recently, the legal aftermath of a religious practice involving a member of the congregation played itself out in the courts.

From the Michigan Court of Appeals in Dadd v. Mount Hope Church:

In July 2002, plaintiff was a member of Mount Hope … .

During religious gatherings at Mount Hope, Williams sometimes asks congregants “if they would like to give their lives to Jesus and they come down [to the altar]. You’ve seen it in the Billy Graham crusades … . That’s an altar call.” During altar calls, Williams and other assigned ministers of Mount Hope pray over the congregants who approach the altar. Sometimes, congregants who answer the altar call fall to the ground, a phenomenon referred to as “slain in the spirit.” …

Williams testified that congregants do not regularly fall during an altar call, but plaintiff testified that she may have been “slain in the spirit” over 100 times. Sometimes plaintiff would fall to the ground and other times she would not fall.

Evidence was presented “that ushers were regularly provided during altar calls to catch congregants that fell while being prayed over.”

Dadd took part in a leadership rally at the church. There was an altar call. Dadd answered it.

While being prayed over by an assistant minister, she was “slain in the spirit,” fell backward and struck her head on the floor. Plaintiff sustained a head injury, the seriousness of which was in dispute.

Dadd’s medical bills began to add up and she asked the church for help.

Sir Thomas Browne once observed that charity begins at home. But insurance coverage, a Mount Hope representative told Dadd, ends at $5,000. Dadd sued for negligence. Where was the usher who was supposed to catch me?, she asked.

After the suit was filed, Dadd heard some interesting hearsay. A friend said that her sister-in-law said that Williams said “some things that weren’t very nice” about Dadd at another leadership rally. From the COA’s opinion in Dadd:

After summarizing the events surrounding plaintiff’s fall and noting that plaintiff refused to fill out insurance forms, Williams indicated that “it almost makes you want to think that this was a design. That this, this was a premeditated design – but I can’t say for sure, and I don’t know… .”

Plaintiff testified that she felt hurt by Williams’ comments. [Later], Williams wrote a letter and sent it to the members of the “120-prayer group.” The 120-prayer group is a group of 50 Mount Hope members that pray daily for Williams. In the 120-prayer group letter Williams explained, “what I believe,” and without mentioning plaintiff’s name, (though he admitted at trial the 120-prayer group letter was about plaintiff) he indicated that the church had received warnings about plaintiff being “trouble,” implied plaintiff was malingering, and that she was attempting to commit insurance fraud.

When Dadd got wind of this, she amended her complaint to add counts for intentional infliction of emotional distress, false light, slander and libel.

Before trial, Williams argued that his comments about Dadd were protected by a qualified privilege — the “shared interest” privilege, which “extends to all bona fide communications concerning any subject matter in which a party has an interest or a duty owed to a person sharing a corresponding interest or duty. The privilege embraces not only legal duties but also moral and social obligations.” See, Rosenboom v. Vanek, 182 Mich. App. 113 (1989).

The trial court declined to so instruct the jury. The jury specifically found that Williams had “knowledge that the statement was false or … act[ed] with reckless disregard as to whether the statement was false.” The jury assessed damages for Dadd: $40,000 for her negligence claim; $23,750 for her false-light claim; $200,000 for her libel claim and $50,000 for her slander claim. The trial court tacked on $3,505.68 in various taxes, costs and fees.

The COA reversed in part. As to the negligence claim, an usher should have been standing by for Dadd, the COA ruled.

Williams made it clear to the congregants that ushers were trained to catch persons who fall during an altar call. Significantly, plaintiff alleges that an usher specifically solicited her participation in the altar call. This usher then directed her to a specific place before the altar where a specific minister would pray over her. A person in plaintiff’s position could reasonably conclude that the usher who positioned her for this altar call would also guard her through the process.

But as to the intentional tort claims, the COA said all of those must be retried because the court should have instructed about qualified privilege.

Last week, the MSC reinstated the entire judgment on a 5-2 vote.

The trial court properly instructed the jury on false light invasion of privacy, which included an instruction that “plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant must have known or acted in reckless disregard of the falsity of the information and the false light in which the plaintiff would be perceived.”

The jury found that the defendant acted with malice in making the statements which were the same ones alleged to have been defamatory. Because this finding of malice negates the qualified privilege that may exist in the context of the plaintiff’s claims for libel and slander, any error by the trial court in failing to instruct the jury on a qualified privilege for plaintiff’s libel and slander claims is harmless.

Justice Stephen Markman, joined by Justice Maura Corrigan, dissented.