State Superior Court has ordered a new trial in a local businessman’s defamation case against The Citizens’ Voice newspaper over articles published nearly 13 years ago.
Thomas A. Joseph has argued that his business suffered a “mass exodus” of clients after a series of articles linking him to an alleged grand jury investigation were printed in The Citizens’ Voice in 2001.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, Superior Court vacated a 2012 County Court judgment in favor of the newspaper, sending the case back down for further proceedings.
A $3.5 million defamation verdict from 2006 was later overturned, with the case sent back to Luzerne County Court. Joseph is seeking “general damages,” Philadelphia attorney George Croner said.
Tim Hinton, a Scranton-based attorney who is part of the newspaper’s legal team, said he had no comment on the order when reached Wednesday.
The articles in question, published between June and October of 2001, were written by former Citizens’ Voice reporters Edward Lewis and James Conmy. Lewis now works for The Times Leader.
Joseph and his son, Thomas Joseph Jr., filed suit against the newspaper in 2002, claiming their reputations were damaged. They said the articles, which cited anonymous sources, falsely alleged Joseph was under investigation for using two of his businesses to launder money for reputed local mobster William “Billy” D’Elia and others.
Joseph never was charged with any crime — and, Croner wrote in an e-mail, “neither Joseph, Joseph, Jr., nor any of Joseph, Sr.’s businesses were even mentioned in the indictment resulting from the investigation about which Edward Lewis claimed to be reporting.”
Joseph has said profitability at Acumark, a direct mail and printing company, dropped off dramatically after the articles were published.
Lawyers for the newspaper have contended that the articles accurately reflected information garnered from law enforcement officials who were knowledgeable about the alleged probe.
The case has taken many turns:
2006: Non-jury trial held in May before then-county Judge Mark A. Ciavarella. In December of that year, Ciavarella issues a verdict against the newspaper and Lewis, awarding Joseph $2 million and Acumark $1.5 million in compensatory damages. The claims against Conmy were dismissed.
2008: Superior Court upholds Ciavarella’s verdict in a September ruling.
2009: State Supreme Court overturns the verdict, ruling there was a “pervasive appearance of impropriety” in how the case was assigned to and handled by the now-disgraced Ciavarella, finding evidence that the case was improperly steered to Ciavarella by former Judge Michael Conahan, his co-defendant in the 2009 federal corruption case that put both men behind bars. The case is sent back to County Court.
2011: A new non-jury trial is held in May before then-county Judge Joseph Van Jura. In December, Van Jura rules in favor of the newspaper. The judge writes that he did not find the Josephs’ testimony credible, finding that no evidence by any witness suggested the articles diminished their opinion of the Josephs.
2012: County Judge Lesa Gelb in March denied a motion filed by Joseph’s attorneys seeking a new trial and reinstatement of the $3.5 million judgment.
In Tuesday’s Superior Court opinion, Senior Judge Eugene B. Strassburger called for a new trial on the issues of:
• Whether the newspaper and its writers acted with actual malice;
• What, if any, general damages the plaintiffs suffered “as a result of the defamatory articles;”
• Whether the plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages.
Strassburger’s opinion did, however, uphold denial of a new trial regarding special damages claims by Acumark.
Croner, who is representing Joseph, said he was pleased to learn of the court’s decision after years of litigation.
“These articles were published in 2001. The judicial system has not covered itself with glory in the handling of this case,” Croner said in a telephone interview.
In particular, Croner said he was glad that the new trial will deal with damages, instead of once again revisiting the question of whether the articles are defamatory.
“The Superior Court very clearly concluded that the Articles published in the Citizens’ Voice in 2001 were false and defamatory,” Croner wrote in a later e-mail.