With so many high-profile defamation litigations pending across the nation, a recent jury verdict for Cardi B at the conclusion of trial in a Georgia federal court provides a litmus test of jury receptiveness to slander, libel and false light claims by public figures. Last week, a jury in the Northern District of Georgia awarded rapper Cardi B (a/k/a Belcalis Almánzar) over $4 million in damages in her defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress suit against YouTube vlogger Latasha Kebe.
The jury verdict represents a major win for Cardi, who filed suit against Kebe in March 2019 alleging that the vlogger defamed her on at least 38 occasions on her vlog, “unWinewithTashaK.” As I wrote a few months ago, the Court dismissed all of Kebe’s counterclaims against Cardi but also rejected Cardi’s motion for summary judgment on her defamation claims, ordering that a jury should decide the issues of fact and paving the way for a trial showdown.
Both Kebe and Cardi testified during the trial, which took place over the course of last month. In her testimony, Cardi testified that as a result of Kebe’s false allegations (among other statements, allegations that Cardi had sexually transmitted infections, was a sex worker and used illicit drugs), she suffered extreme depression and anxiety. According to her testimony, Kebe's statements led her to become “extremely suicidal” and feel hopeless.
As reported in media coverage, Kebe ceded ground on cross examination by Cardi's attorneys, admitting that she knowingly published lies in order to generate money for her business. According to Law360, Cardi's attorneys played a video of Kebe stating that she "knew that s*** was fake" when she alleged that Cardi B cheated on her husband and had a sexually transmitted infection, but that she "wanted the money" because "this is a business[;] [t]his is called ratings" Under long-held defamation law precedent, plaintiffs like Cardi B who are public figures must show that defendants either knew their statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
On January 24, the jurors announced their verdict in favor of Cardi, awarding $1.25 million in actual damages, broken down as $1 million for pain, suffering and/or reputational injury and $250,000 for actual medical expenses. The next day, the jurors awarded Cardi an additional $1.5 million in punitive damages and further found that Kebe must pay the full amount of attorney’s fees Cardi B sought. In all, the verdict awards over $4 million to Cardi.
It is difficult to know what lessons to take from this verdict, especially given the rather extraordinary set of facts (including the admission by the defendant that she knew that some of her statements were false and that she only said them to make money). While trial may be over, the litigation seems likely to continue, as Kebe’s attorneys have stated that they will be filing an appeal of the verdict. We’ll see what happens.
For practitioners who represent public figures in defamation actions – either as plaintiffs or defendants – the verdict serves as a reminder of both the uncertainty of taking a case to trial, as well as the potentially astronomical damages a jury may be willing to award to plaintiffs, not just in compensatory damages but also on punitive damages and fees.