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Kansas Supreme Court Selected Opinion Summaries - April 30, 2010

Summaries and press releases are prepared by Ron Keefover, Office of Judicial Administration, Kansas Judicial Center, 301 West 10th, Topeka, KS 66612-1507 (785-296-2256), e-mail: keefover@kscourts.org.

The Supreme Court today filed decisions in the following cases today. The full text of these decisions may be found at www.kscourts.org.

Appeal No. 99,139: Melanie L. Valadez, As Administrator of the Estate of Roger G. Valadez v. Emmis Communications and Todd Spessard

The Supreme Court today reversed the balance of a jury verdict that was awarded on behalf the estate of a Wichita man who was incorrectly identified by a local TV station as a suspect in the BTK murders.

A Sedgwick County jury originally awarded Roger G. Valadez $800,000 for mental suffering, shame, and humiliation and $300,000 for injury to reputation. His widow, Melanie Valadez, was substituted as plaintiff in the case after Roger Valadez died. However, Sedgwick County District Judge Paul W. Clark ruled that the award for injury to Valadez’ reputation abated upon his death because the Journal Entry of judgment had not been filed before he died. The Supreme Court affirmed the judge on that ruling.

Judge Clark also had previously reduced the $800,000 portion of the verdict to $250,000 because of the Kansas statutory cap on noneconomic losses. However, the Supreme Court today reversed the $250,000 award, finding that “while Valadez provided testimony that he suffered emotional distress, he failed to present evidence that the distress was extreme.”

The jury award was based on reporting by Wichita station KSN Channel 3 against Emmis Communications, station owner, and Todd Spessard, who was news director on December 1, 2004, when the television station linked Valadez to the BTK murder investigation.  Dennis Rader was arrested in February 2005 in connection with the murders and ultimately pled guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder.  He was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms.

Regarding the remaining $250,000 that the jury had awarded for emotional distress, Justice Eric S. Rosen said in today’s decision the Court determined that the plaintiff didn’t present sufficient evidence to rise to the level of extreme emotional distress, something that was required for Valadez to recover damages.

Justice Rosen said in the unanimous decision, “It is likely that Valadez would have suffered some emotional distress if the defendants had limited their broadcast to certain accurate information.  For example, if the station had reported only that an anonymous tip had connected Valadez to BTK and that a large contingent of police had then moved in during the night to arrest Valadez and to execute a search warrant on his house, the results would likely have included some degree of public embarrassment and emotional difficulty.  It was incumbent on Valadez to demonstrate that he suffered severe emotional distress beyond what he experienced as a result of the defendants’ constitutionally protected activities,” Justice Rosen wrote.

“We find that, as a matter of law, the Estate failed to present sufficient evidence to prove that the injury suffered by Valadez was extreme within the context of this action for outrage. We do not hold that the media is beyond the scope of tortious outrage actions in all circumstances; we merely hold that under the facts of this case the plaintiff failed to prove an injury severe enough to sustain his claim,” Justice Rosen said in the Court’s decision.

The Court ruled that a verdict for defamation cannot be upheld if the person who was defamed dies before the Journal Entry of the verdict is filed.  Valadez died on November 27, 2006, just over a month after the jury verdict was reached, but well before the Journal Entry of judgment was filed on January 10, 2007.