Million-Dollar Verdict For Plaintiff Experiencing $1 In Damages: The Michael Mann Defamation Suit

Million-Dollar Verdict For Plaintiff Experiencing $1 In Damages: The Michael Mann Defamation Suit

Michael Mann is a professor of climate science at the University of Pennsylvania.  He rose to notoriety for a graph he published in 1998 in the journal Nature, meant to illustrate the dramatic warming of the planet.  The curve in the graph resembled a hockey stick and, as such, was dubbed the “Hockey Stick” in climate science literature and academia.

In 2012, Rand Simberg published a blog post with the Competitive Enterprise Institute concluding that the Hockey Stick was comprised of errant data, comparing Mann to convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky by stating, “Instead of molesting children, [Mann] has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized data.”  Another writer, Mark Steyn, referenced Simberg’s post in an article in the National Review, stating that Mann was “behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey stick’ graph.”

Mann sued for defamation, giving rise to a 12-year legal battle.  On February 8, 2024, a jury found in his favor, awarding him $1 in compensatory damages and over $1 million in punitive damages.[1]

How can a jury award only $1 in compensatory damages and over $1 million in punitive damages?

First, let’s break down what compensatory versus punitive damages are in a lawsuit.  Compensatory damages are money awarded to a plaintiff to compensate for proven losses.  For example, if an employee is wrongfully terminated and unable to get a job for several months, compensatory damages would equal the lost wages incurred by the plaintiff.  Compensatory damages can also be based on emotional distress experienced.  Sometimes in the law we describe compensatory damages as the amount of money needed, or appropriately calibrated, to make plaintiff “whole.”

A $1 jury award is what we call a nominal damages award.  A nominal damages award means the jury believed that Mann’s legal rights were violated, but that he didn’t lose any money, or experience any emotional distress, as a result of the violation.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are damages designed to punish the defendant.  Generally, the purpose of our civil justice system is to make plaintiffs whole and curb further violations, not to punish wrongdoers.  As such, states have strict rules about when, whether, and under what circumstances a plaintiff can seek punitive damages.  Usually, punitive damages are available in cases where the defendant acted more than negligently, meaning recklessly—without regard to the consequences of her or his actions—or intentionally.

When a compensatory damages award is nominal but accompanied by a substantial punitive damages award, as in Mann’s case, it means the jury sought to punish the defendant for its conduct, regardless of whether the plaintiff experienced actual, tangible, quantifiable harm.

While this type of result is not unheard-of in defamation cases, it is very likely to be appealed.  The United States Supreme Court has held that, in certain circumstances, punitive damages may be so large that they violate the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The defendants in the Mann case also argued, unsuccessfully in the trial court, that their speech was protected by the First Amendment and this issue, as well, is likely to be appealed. The contours of the Due Process analysis with respect to punitive damages awards, and the application of the First Amendment to defamation claims, are complex, but suffice it to say that the jury award in the Mann case is unlikely to be the last word on the matter.

[1] The jury verdicts were against the writers only. Mann’s claims against the publications were dismissed over the course of the litigation.

Are you facing a defamation lawsuit and looking for legal advice? Contact the winning litigation team of attorneys at Parker Daniels Kibort to discuss how we can help. Call 612.355.4100.