The Actual Meaning of “Actual”: Recovering Punitive Damages in Defamation Claims in Maryland

by Luke Baumstark

At first blush, the prospect of recovering punitive damages in a Maryland defamation claim can seem daunting, at best. A careful review of applicable case law, however, shows that, although not “easy” by any stretch, such a recovery is not as herculean a task as it may initially seem.

According to Le Marc’s Mgmt. Corp. v. Valentin, 709 A.2d 1222, 1226 (1998), Maryland plaintiffs can recover punitive damages for defamation claims only after proving “that the defendant had actual knowledge that the defamatory statement was false.” To most, the term “actual knowledge” strongly suggests a subjective component. In other words, the Le Marc’s Mgmt. Corp. language seems to say that a plaintiff must somehow prove precisely what a defendant really and truly knew. Attorneys who have attempted to prove another’s state of mind can attest to how difficult this would be.

On its face, Le Marc seems to make it almost impossible to recover punitive damages in defamation claims. A review of the actual meaning of “actual” as used in Maryland courts, however, brightens the picture considerably.

Although “actual knowledge” has a common-sense meaning that most of us would understand in every day conversation, continued investigation shows that Maryland Courts define the term differently than we might think. Indeed, they have expanded the definition beyond its “common sense” meaning to include “knowledge of circumstances which ought to have put a person of ordinary prudence on inquiry [thus, charging the individual] with notice of all facts which such an investigation would in all probability have disclosed if it had been properly pursued.” Young v. Medlantic Lab. P’ship, 725 A.2d 572, 574-75 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1999). (emphasis added). Citing Poffenberger v. Risser, 431 A.2d 677, 681 (Md. 1981). (internal citations omitted). See also O’Hara v. Kovens, 503 A.2d 1313, 1324 (Md. 1986). See also Pittman v. Atlantic Realty Co., 732 A.2d 919 n.6 (Md. 1999). See also Russo v. Ascher, 545 A.2d 714, 716 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1988) (quoting Poffenberger v. Risser, supra).

This broadened definition of “actual knowledge” relieves Maryland plaintiffs of the near-impossible task of proving a defendant’s subjective state of mind. Instead of proving precisely what the defendant knew, they can simply establish that the defendant knew something that should have spurred an investigation, which, in turn “would in all probability” have shown the defendant that its statement was false. Young 725 A.2d at 574-75. See also Pittman v. Atlantic Realty Co., 732 A.2d 919 n.6 (Md. 1999) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 873 (6th ed. 1990) in defining actual knowledge as “knowledge that ‘embraces those things of which the one sought to be charged has express information and those things which a reasonably diligent inquiry and by exercise of the means of information at hand would have disclosed.’”). In effect, this imposes on defendants a burden of investigating the truthfulness of their statements before making them. It also prevents them from evading punitive damages by remaining willfully ignorant of the falsity of their defamatory statements.

The lessons to be learned from this are simple. First, when it comes to interpreting law, “actual” may not actually mean “actual,” at least not in the everyday sense of the word. Second, if you are seeking to recover for defamation (or for any other wrongdoing or violation of your rights, for that matter), it is important to ensure that you have an attorney whose investigation will not stop at the “common sense” meaning of legal jargon. The size of your recovery may depend on it.