Bentley v. Bunton
In Bentley v. Bunton, 94 S.W.3d 561, 607 (Tex. 2002) the Court reviewed a mental anguish award of $ 7 million, holding that it was excessive and without support in the evidence.
With regard to appellate review for evidentiary support of noneconomic damages, the Court wrote:
"Just as a jury's prerogative of assessing the credibility of evidence does not authorize it to find liability when there is no supporting evidence or no liability in the face of unimpeachable evidence, so a large amount of mental anguish damages cannot survive appellate review if there is no evidence to support it, or a small amount of damages when the evidence of larger damages is conclusive. The jury is bound by the evidence in awarding damages, just as it is bound by the law." Id. at 606.
The Bentley court "rejected the view that the authority for appellate review of insufficient evidence displaces an appellate court's obligation . . . to determine whether there is any evidence at all of the amount of damages determined by the jury." Id.
The Texas Supreme Court found sufficient evidence to support an award of mental anguish damages.
In Bentley, a district court judge sued a number of people connected with a public access television show hosted by Bunton.
Bunton repeatedly accused Bentley of being corrupt, and, in fact, accused Bentley of being the most corrupt public official in the area.
Bunton mentioned specific proof he had of Bentley's corruption, and on one occasion accused Bentley of acting criminally. Id. at 568-71.
The Court explained:
"The record leaves no doubt that Bentley suffered mental anguish as a result of Bunton's and Gates's statements. Bentley testified that the ordeal had cost him time, deprived him of sleep, caused him embarrassment in the community in which he had spent almost all of his life, disrupted his family, and distressed his children at school. The experience, he said, was the worst of his life. Friends testified that he had been depressed, that his honor and integrity had been impugned, that his family had suffered, too, adding to his own distress, and that he would never be the same. Much of Bentley's anxiety was caused by Bunton's relentlessness in accusing him of corruption." Id. at 606-07.
The Texas Supreme Court held that the First Amendment requires appellate review of amounts awarded for mental-anguish and reputation damages in defamation cases "to ensure that any recovery only compensates the plaintiff for actual injuries and is not a disguised disapproval of the defendant." See Bentley, 94 S.W.3d at 605 (discussing non-economic award to person in defamation per se case).
But in addressing the defendant's initial argument regarding whether an award of reputation damages was supported by the evidence, the Bentley court rejected the defendant's argument that the evidence did not support any award of reputation damages, holding that "our law presumes that statements that are defamatory per se injure the victim's reputation and entitle him to recover general damages, including damages for loss of reputation." Id. at 604.
The supreme court concluded that evidence that a talk show host, Bentley, acted with actual malice when he accused a local judge, Bunton, of being corrupt was clear and convincing. 94 S.W.3d at 566-67, 602.
The court concluded that Bentley's argument that he "made some investigation" by obtaining court records and conducting legal research before making his allegations did not "have much weight when there is no evidence that Bunton's investigation ever led him to contact any one of a number of other people involved in the circumstances he criticized." Id. at 601.