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Judge awards damages in defamation suit

Former deputy to receive $180,000

POSTED: May 9, 2013 12:29 a.m.
 

A former Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office deputy was awarded $180,000 in damages Wednesday for a defamation lawsuit that dates to August 2009.

Jonathan Smithgall filed suit for libelous comments made against him on a local blog by David Milum, Kim Pruitt and Lisa Shelton.

The three were accused of a civil conspiracy, libel, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress in their repeated statements alleging that Smithgall fathered a baby out of wedlock with ex-girlfriend Shelton and refused to provide support.

The comments were made on About Forsyth, an online forum formerly owned by Milum, who announced his retirement from it in early 2012.

Visiting Judge Roger Bradley granted damages, attorney’s fees and a permanent injunction for the defendants and successors on the blog from posting comments on the issue in a damages hearing in Forsyth County Superior Court.

In August 2011, Bradley had proclaimed the three defendants to be in default.

Smithgall agreed not to seek monetary damages from Pruitt due to her bankruptcy filing in 2010, and she was excused from court.

Bradley ordered general damages in the amount of $30,000 and attorney’s fees of about $63,000 to be split between the other two defendants, with Milum responsible for 85 percent and Shelton for 15 percent.

He also awarded $150,000 in punitive damages from Milum, after reviewing three previous libel cases in which the blogger has been ordered to pay large sums.

“It’s obvious that he is not learning, that he has some sort of reason for persisting,” said Bradley, adding that he hopes the judgment will teach Milum that “truthful statements are defensible.”

Neither Milum nor Shelton was present in court Wednesday, nor were any representatives for them.

Milum could not be immediately reached for comment following the hearing.

Shelton received less of the payment burden following a suggestion by Parks Stone, attorney for Smithgall, who noted her apology and retraction of her statements.

He added that Milum and Pruitt declined a subsequent offer to settle in 2010 by removing the posts from the blog and issuing a public apology.

“[Shelton] started this thing, but finally she stopped it,” Stone said. “She took responsibility for this case, but it was Mr. Milum who took the ball and ran with it.”

Smithgall testified Wednesday that the first blog post appeared in March 2009 after he ended a brief relationship with Shelton, who told him she was pregnant after the break-up.

His attorney said the posts alleged that Smithgall was stalking her in her patrol car, abandoned an alleged child he fathered out of wedlock and drove under the influence of alcohol.

Smithgall said Shelton also filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office and ordered 46 magazine subscriptions to his home and work that were marked “bill me later.” Some were adult in nature.

Shelton issued a letter in September 2010 stating that she was “far from being a victim,” and retracted her statements.

Smithgall said he believed Milum targeted him because he was employed by Forsyth County government, citing other examples of deputies or officials whom Milum had written about.

Though he didn’t appear in court Wednesday, Milum did issue a request to split the costs to pay for a paternity test for the child.
It remains unclear if a baby was ever born.

He also filed a motion for a pause in proceedings due to an ongoing battle with leukemia until he was returned to “somewhat normal physical and mental capacities.”

Milum included a note from his doctor, who said he should refrain from litigation until his condition improved.

Bradley denied the request, stating the documentation was not submitted properly and no information on when he might improve was given. He added that Milum did not respond to his messages to resubmit the information.

The case has been delayed in the past due to issues related to Milum’s health.

At a previously scheduled damages hearing last June, Milum was taken to the hospital after collapsing in the courthouse lobby.

Milum was released later that day, according to Bradley, who said he never received the requested information about that medical cause.

Stone argued the most recent request was “yet another attempt to delay this case,” and cited other examples of what he considered “bad faith” tactics by the defendants.

The judgment is Milum’s fourth related to blog posts.

A 2006 Forsyth County Superior Court ruling ordered Milum to pay $50,000 to local attorney Rafe Banks III.

A jury found Milum had libeled Banks on his Web site in 2004 by accusing the lawyer of delivering bribes for drug dealers to judges.

According to the Media Law Center, Milum was the first blogger in the country to lose a libel suit, a case that received national attention.

In October 2007, a Superior Court jury ruled against Milum for malice and ordered him to pay former Forsyth County employee Joseph Gooden $100,000 in damages and $50,000 for attorney’s fees.

The lawsuit was filed against Milum in 2005 for alleging on a Web site that Gooden accepted bribes and extorted money from county vendors.

In 2012, he was ordered to pay $25,000 in punitive damages to Matt Murphy, a former Forsyth County planning commissioner in what was also a default judgment.

Milum “said or implied that plaintiff Murphy engaged in public drunkenness” and participated in obscene behavior in a truck outside Milum’s home, according to the complaint.

 

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