On Friday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a jury award to a Korean businessman who said he was defamed by newspaper columns in a Korean-language newspaper.
According to the unpublished appellate opinion in Choi v. Lee, defendant Kyu Chul Lee, a syndicated columnist, wrote four newspaper columns that painted plaintiff James Soo Choi in an unfavorable light, describing him as a thug and a gangster, and alleging that he had improperly titled in his own corporate name a building purchased with funds from the Federation of Korean Associations of America. Lee also alleged Choi was drunk and behaved poorly at a 2005 Federation convention.
A jury in Alexandria federal court awarded Choi $25,000 compensatory and $50,000 punitive damages against the columnist and the newspaper.
Descriptions of Choi as a “thug” and a “gangster” were actionable, the 4th Circuit panel said, and could properly go before a jury.
But the panel agreed with Lee that the district court’s jury instructions did not provide sufficient guidance on that central thorny question in defamation cases: fact versus opinion. The trial court should have paid more attention to the detailed directions proffered by the defendants, the panel said.
The judge also should have told the jury that the plaintiff was required to prove he was not intoxicated at the convention, and that the statement was defamatory. Such behavior “is commonplace enough” to be merely “embarrassing,” the panel said.
By Deborah Elkins