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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Strips Plaintiff of Punitive Damages

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit heard a second appeal in May 2012 in a privacy case involving Larry Flynt Publishing Group, LLC (LFP) and the estate of a deceased model. Maureen Toffoloni, the mother and executor of Nancy Benoit’s estate, brought suit in 2008 against LFP for publication of twenty-year-old nude pictures in Hustler magazine less than a year after Benoit was murdered. The claim asserted violation of Benoit’s right of privacy, a right that under state law (Georgia) survives death and is inheritable and divisible.

In the first appeal, the court held that Toffoloni’s complaint was valid inasmuch as the Benoit estate suffered violation of its privacy rights. The case was remanded to district court, which oversaw discovery and granted partial summary judgment to Toffoloni on the issue of liability. The amount of damage was decided by jury and set at $125,000 compensatory, and $19,603,600 in punitive damages. The district court reduced the punitive award to $250,000, the maximum allowed absent malice aforethought, per Georgia law.

Both parties appealed, Toffoloni seeking the original $19,603,600, and LFP arguing that there should be no punitive damages at all.

In the second appeal, Toffoloni argued for reinstatement of the $19,603,600 figure because the district court failed to give due deference to the jury’s finding that LFP intended to harm Toffoloni. LFP maintained that the district court misconstrued the circuit court’s opinion as conclusively non-newsworthy, newsworthiness being the exemption to privacy protection. LFP also averred, and brought forth evidence that the violation of privacy was an innocent mistake as to their right to publish under the subjective determination of newsworthiness of lack thereof.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with LFP that no reasonable jury could find clear and convincing evidence to support imposition of punitive damages.

The court affirmed the $125,000 compensatory damages and remanded the $250,000 punitive damages judgment back to district court with instruction to vacate the punitive damages award. See: Toffoloni v. LFP Pub. Group, LLC, 483 Fed.Appx. 561 (11th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Toffoloni v. LFP Pub. Group, LLC