December 30, 1998
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

Court says mayor can be sued

By Sean Whaley

Donrey Capital Bureau CARSON CITY - The Supreme Court said Tuesday in a split decision that former Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Miller can sue Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones for defamation stemming from a campaign flier issued by the Jones campaign in their 1991 race for mayor.

Writing for the majority, Justice Cliff Young said sufficient evidence was presented in District Court to support a jury finding that Jones acted with actual malice in publishing a flier in May 1991 that said in part, 'A police detective accuses Miller of giving false information in a report concerning cocaine found in a car Miller was driving.'

The statement, printed in red in the campaign flier issued days before the election that Jones won, relied on an article that had appeared in the Las Vegas Sun in 1988.

Miller sued Jones for defamation, arguing the part of the statement that read 'cocaine found in a car Miller was driving' was false because no cocaine was ever found in the car, nor was Miller driving it at the time, as some voters could have interpreted from the statement.

Young, who was joined by Justice Bob Rose and District Judge Richard Wagner, serving in place of Justice Bill Maupin, said, 'We conclude that based on this evidence, a jury could reasonably find that Jones acted with a reckless disregard for the truth in publishing the statement at issue.'

Young said the statement published in the flier was intended to be viewed as a verifiable fact and not an opinion. Therefore, the assertion, if not true, is defamatory, he said.

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court dismissal of another claim by Miller that he suffered emotional stress as a result of the publication of the flier, but reversed the lower court's decision to award attorney fees to Jones.

In dismissing the case in 1993, District Judge Carl Christensen said Miller's case was brought without reasonable grounds. Miller was assessed $ 20,000 in attorneys fees and $ 1,164.80 in court costs. Maupin was also involved in the case as a district judge and so did not participate in the Supreme Court decision.

The case was ordered back to District Court for a trial on the defamation issue.

Jones could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Miller said the decision was 'fantastic.'
'I'm just so excited and so happy,' he said. 'For the sake of anyone running for public office in this state, this decision, and hopefully a decision by a jury, will cause there to be higher quality campaigns in the future.'

Miller said it has taken more than seven years to get a Supreme Court ruling because Jones tried to stall the case.

'She tried every legal trick in the book to keep this from going to a jury,' he said.
Miller said he will seek punitive damages in a jury trial of 'three million dollars plus.'

Justice Miriam Shearing agreed with the majority that the claim of infliction of emotional distress was properly dismissed, but said the lower court's decision to dismiss the defamation claim should also have been upheld.

Chief Justice Charles Springer, who said of the case, 'It looks like libel per se to me,' when oral arguments were presented June 17, nevertheless dissented from the majority.

Springer said the article about the alleged finding of cocaine by a body shop worker in the car Miller had purchased, which clearly absolved Miller of any wrongdoing, was reprinted in the flier along with the disputed statement about Miller driving the car.

'Mr. Miller claims that Ms. Jones' use of the words, 'was driving,' defamed him by portraying him as a 'drug abuser, drug courier, crook or some other type of degenerate,'' Springer said. 'I do not think that any reasonable person would draw the inference suggested by Mr. Miller; and the trial court was correct in finding that 'was driving' is not defamatory as Ms. Jones used the term.'

The car in question was a 1977 Porsche purchased by Miller's daughter that he had driven only once. A powdery substance was found by a mechanic when the car was taken to a garage, but it had been thrown away and was never tested to determine what it was.