by Lorraine Bailey
A horse breeder owes just a quarter of the $60,000 judgment entered against her for accusing a dog trainer of abuse, a federal judge ruled.
Virginia news outlets started reporting an investigation into alleged acts of animal abuse at Aberdeen Acres in November 2011. Russell Ebersole, who owns the pet boarding and training center in Stephenson, Virginia filed suit pro se when horse breeder Bridget Kline-Perry subsequently accused him of animal abuse in emails and Facebook posts.
Kline-Perry, who owns Norsire Farms, claimed that she saw Ebersole stomp on the foot of a puppy named Zeus that was brought to Aberdeen Acres for training.
In one email, Kline-Perry said she read an article “about people leaving dogs and coming back to find they were dead and the bodies were ‘disposed’ of before they got their [sic] to pick up their dog, dogs being drop kicked across a room, dogs being shocked on the highest shock until they passed out with blood running out of their mouths and eyes or died, employees getting their cell phones taken from them and smashed with [sic] they tried to take pictures of Russ beating the dogs, dogs being chocked [sic] and swung over his head like a helicopter … this is on tape with the drug people in DC on cam, dogs being shocked until they screamed in pain and crawled on their belly to Russ to try to please him and the [sic] would call them and pet them as he shocked the shit out of them.” [Ellipsis in original.]
She also asked People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to protest at Ebersole’s kennel.
A jury awarded Ebersole $7,500 in compensatory damages and $60,000 in punitive damages, but U.S. District Judge James Cacheris found the punitive award unconstitutionally excessive.
While the jury found that Kline-Perry acted with malice, Cacheris credited testimony that “her actions were motivated by a desire to protect the animals in plaintiff’s care rather than to harm or injure plaintiff.”
In sum, defendant’s conduct was not extraordinarily reprehensible, but was sufficiently blameworthy that the jury was justified in awarding punitive damages,” the decision states.
“The 8:1 ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages is constitutionally suspect,” Cacheris added, noting that local media outlets had published stories of the alleged animal abuse before Kline-Perry posted libelous comments online.
In addition, the criminal penalty for libel is a maximum fine of only $500.
“The fact that the jury’s award of punitive damages is twenty-four times greater than the maximum criminal penalty defendant would face for her conduct does indicate that the award is grossly excessive,” Cacheris wrote.
“The court concludes that a 75 percent reduction to the jury’s punitive damages award is appropriate,” he added.
“The resulting award of punitive damages is $15,000, and the resulting ratio to compensatory damages is 2:1. The court finds that such an award comports with defendant’s conduct in this case, and satisfies the deterrence objective of punitive damages.”