Politics & Government

Kentucky appeals court throws out jury verdict awarding $200,000 to state senator

State Sen. Ralph Alvarado
State Sen. Ralph Alvarado

The Kentucky Court of Appeals has thrown out a unanimous jury verdict awarding Republican state Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester $200,000 in damages in a defamation suit.

In an opinion released Friday, the Court of Appeals said there was no actual malice amounting to defamation demonstrated in the lawsuit Alvarado filed against former Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, a Democrat from Winchester.

The Clark Circuit Court jury in 2016 awarded Alvarado $125,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages for defamation.

Alvarado said he was surprised by the opinion and plans to appeal it.

"I'm surprised they were so willing to overturn a unanimous jury verdict in Clark County," Alvarado said. "And we are planning to appeal it to the (Kentucky) Supreme Court. I think we anticipated that no matter what the appellate court's decision was going to be, we anticipated this was a case that was going to be appealed to the Supreme Court."

Alvarado, a physician, was running for election in 2014 to the state Senate against Palmer, the incumbent. Palmer ran a 30-second television ad criticizing Alvarado’s opposition to legislation intended to regulate the prescribing of controlled substances.

The ad spliced video footage out of order from recorded courtroom proceedings in Montgomery County. Alvarado, who won the election, contended the ad cast him as a drug dealer.

The ad implied that he unlawfully prescribed $3,000 worth of oxycodone to a criminal defendant, Alvarado said. Video from the court hearing is clear that the defendant had a valid prescription for OxyContin, Alvarado said.

A trial was held in December 2016 in which Alvarado sued Palmer and his campaign for defamation and publicly placing a person in a false light.

Palmer appealed the verdict, saying the ad was protected political speech. Palmer also contended that the evidence presented by Alvarado was insufficient to support the jury’s damages verdict.

Palmer also contended that it was an abuse of discretion by Judge Rob Johnson to refuse to grant a continuance due to the absence of a witness.

The appeals court said there was no evidence of actual malice in the ad, given that the ad “is an accurate representation of what happened at the hearing shown in the ad.”

The appeals court said it recognizes “that this case involved a unanimous jury verdict, and we do not take lightly the effect of vacating the judgment.”

But the appeals court said the finding of actual malice is subject to independent review by an appellate court.

“We, therefore, find that as a matter of law, actual malice necessary to amount to defamation and false light does not exist in this case,” the Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion. “The verdict is, therefore, reversed without a need to discuss the issue of damages or the denied continuance.”

Earlier in 2016, Alvarado settled a defamation suit he brought against Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons, whose company created the ad. Emmons signed a public apology letter. That settlement contained “financial provisions” but the parties declined to reveal them and they were not spelled out in court documents.

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