A federal appeals court has ordered a new trial in a long-running defamation suit against a former Forsyth County sheriff.
As a result, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals also threw out the $3.6 million judgment a federal jury awarded to Danny Bennett in a lawsuit he and Danny Reid filed against Dennis “Denny” Hendrix.
Hendrix served as sheriff from 1997 to 2000.
Bennett and Reid sued Hendrix 11 years ago, maintaining the then sheriff had libeled them in three fliers he used prior to an August 2000 runoff election against Ted Paxton.
The papers featured mug shots of Bennett and Reid, both of whom contributed to Paxton’s campaign, and other county residents. Those pictured were labeled as “criminals” and one was labeled a “convicted criminal.”
The photos of Bennett and Reid were taken in 1995, according to testimony presented in trial, after they were arrested for allegedly conducting work at a construction site without a permit. The charges were eventually dropped.
Hendrix maintained he had hired a political consultant to handle the campaign and thought the fliers were true.
Bennett was awarded the $3.6 million in damages and Reid was awarded $3.1 million in May 2007.
In November of that year, a U.S. District Court judge overruled the jury’s decision, only to reinstate it in May 2010, awarding Bennett the $3.6 million.
The appeals court ruled late last week that because 24,000 of the 36,000 fliers Hendrix distributed were protected by the First Amendment, a new trial must be held to determine what damages, if any, can be attributed to the remaining fliers.
Attorneys for Hendrix could not be reached for comment.
The attorney for Bennett and Reid, Eric Chofnas, criticized the court's decision.
"Under Georgia law, damages are determined based on the entire publication and the case was tried on the basis that all three fliers were the publication and the defendant never objected to that," Chofnas said. "It's just a little bit ridiculous what the 11th Circuit has done."
Chofnas went on to say that he thinks the jurors in the next trial will be "hopelessly confused" when given instructions on how to determine the damage, considering that all three fliers use Bennett's photo and say he is a convicted felon.
"It's going to be a completely meaningless exercise," he said. "I'm sure the jurors are just going to be scratching their heads wondering how the federal court system can ... make us do this."
Chofnas said he plans to ask for more than the $3.6 million for his client, but declined to elaborate.
With a new trial, he noted there could be more appeals and the matter could stretch for another decade.