Editors at Work: Painful Experiences With Lawyers (Part Three)

By Jack Limpert

Here’s an expensive, exhausting, almost-got-me-fired lesson I learned the hard way: As an editor, don’t get in between a man and a woman who went through an angry divorce.

It was a lawsuit involving a Washington man who was a very public figure. He and his wife had met overseas, had gotten married, had been a fairly high-profile couple in Washington, and then got divorced. The woman came to us wanting to tell her story, which included a somewhat unusual courtship and many visits to the White House. We did the story, co-authored by the ex-wife and a staff writer, and we used quotes from letters the man had sent to the woman early in the relationship. The lawsuit was for copyright violation and invasion of privacy.

If you’ve never been served with a lawsuit, I can testify that it’s a jolt to your system. There may be editors who have been through so much legal maneuvering that a lawsuit doesn’t make them physically ill, but I wasn’t one of them.

In this case, a 14-page summons arrived, asking for an answer to the complaint within 20 days. Much of the complaint said who the parties were, with me as one of the defendants, plus the background of the case. Then there was Count I: Copyright Infringement. A summary: Plaintiff is sole owner of the copyrights to all personal letters sent to the woman who had been his wife, and he at all times retained his copyright to those letters. As sole owner of the copyrights to his letters, plaintiff has the exclusive right to reproduce and to authorize the reproduction of the letters, and so on. Count 2: Invasion of Privacy. A summary: The letters published in the article are personal, private, and intimate letters protected by the plaintiff’s right to privacy under common law. Count 3: Punitive Damages. A summary: In his capacity as editor, defendant Limpert knew, or should have known, that publication of plaintiff’s personal, private, and intimate letters without plaintiff’s consent constituted an illegal infringement of plaintiff’s copyright to the letters, as well as an invasion of privacy. Through his outrageous conduct in publishing plaintiff’s letters, defendant Limpert acted in malicious, wanton, willful or reckless disregard of plaintiff’s copyright and his right to privacy.

The complaint then asks: For Count 1: Any actual damages together with any profits of defendants that are attributable to said infringement. For Count 2: Each of the defendants will pay $5 million plus interest, attorneys’ fees, and litigation expenses. For Count 3: Each of the defendants will pay $5 million in punitive damages.

For an editor, there goes a good night’s sleep for weeks, maybe months. It took more than a year to reach a settlement, with the legal fees probably 10 times the cost of the actual settlement. The legal fees were very painful for the magazine, and what seemed like endless legal maneuvering affected all of us emotionally and was a big distraction from putting together a good magazine.

My deposition in the case ran to 200 pages—again, a journalist who has never been sued and deposed has no idea what it’s like to face two or three lawyers for several days and be asked seemingly endless questions and be continually reminded that you’re under oath (meaning we can get you for perjury). Once you’ve been there, you don’t forget it and you hope it doesn’t happen again.

A few years after the lawsuit was settled, the plaintiff—who was savvy about how journalists work—called me about something else and acted like we’d never been legal enemies. It seemed pretty clear then that most of his anger went back to a marriage that fell apart and the magazine had gotten caught in the crossfire.

A note about lawyers: After the complaint was filed, there was an initial meeting of the two sides at a law firm. If the plaintiff had been armed, he probably would have taken a shot at his ex-wife, and if armed I might have returned fire. The plaintiff and the defendants were very angry. But when our lawyers came into the room and said hello to the plaintiff’s lawyers, it was like a college reunion: Great to see you, how you doing? At that point, I could have fired our lawyers. Guys, they’re trying to put us out of business….If we lose this case, it might get me fired….Stop acting like it’s great that you lawyers are getting paid $300 an hour for hanging out together….For us non-lawyers it’s war, and we want you to act like we’re going into battle and you’re on our side.

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