A Bitterly Disappointing Verdict

Today the jury returned its verdict in the defamation trial of Michael Mann v. Rand Simberg and Mark Steyn. The verdict was disappointing to those of us who followed the case and thought that Michael Mann presented a pathetically inadequate case. The jury actually agreed: it found that the defendants had defamed Mann, but awarded only a token $1 in damages, since Mann had failed to prove any. But it found that both Simberg and Steyn acted with actual malice–they didn’t actually believe what they said about Mann–and awarded punitive damages in the amount of $1,000 against Simberg, and $1 million against Steyn.

In a sane world, this case never would have gone to the jury. The legal standard is actual malice, which means the defendants must have thought, subjectively, that what they said wasn’t likely true. In this case, there was no evidence whatever that Steyn and Simberg didn’t sincerely believe that what they said was true. Indeed, as Mark pointed out in closing argument, he has been saying the same things about Mann’s hockey stick for something like 21 years, and even wrote a book about it.

Where do we go from here? The trial judge was openly skeptical of Mann’s case, and seemed to take seriously the defendants’ motions for a directed verdict. Those motions presumably were renewed at the close of evidence, and the court might now take them up. It requires a brave judge to take away a jury verdict, but Judge Irving, presiding in this case, was low-key but seemed, if pushed too far, to have a backbone. So who knows, he might do the right thing.

In any event, the case is destined for more years in the appellate courts. In John Williams’ closing argument on behalf of Mann, he said that the jury should award punitive damages so that in the future, no one will dare engage in “climate denialism”–whatever that is–just as Donald Trump’s “election denialism” needs to be suppressed. In 41 years of trying cases to juries, I never heard such an outrageously improper appeal. John Williams should be ashamed of himself, but he won’t be, because this jury apparently bought his argument: they want to make Mark Steyn pay $1 million out of his own pocket, to a plaintiff who suffered no damages but only made an ideological argument, so that no one will, ever again, try to challenge the regime’s global warming narrative. However false that narrative may be.

Ironically, the case may have come full circle. Mark always wanted to try this case as a free speech issue. But that didn’t quite work, since defamation has always been an exception to the First Amendment, or whatever free speech principles may apply. But now Michael Mann’s lawyer has made it explicit: impose an arbitrary seven figure penalty on Mark Steyn, not to compensate the plaintiff Michael Mann, who didn’t suffer any damages whatsoever, but rather to deter anyone from ever again arguing that climate change alarmists are wrong, however flawed their science may be.

It is hard to imagine anything more anti-scientific or anti-American. Let’s hope that somewhere in the federal court system, there are judges who realize what is at stake.

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