While this case is not directly applicable to family court, the holding demonstrates the consequences of attempting to gain an edge in a contested custody dispute by trying to falsely discredit a party. When reading the brief, keep in mind that the jury originally awarded punitive damages against Mr. McElveen in the amount of $6.25 Million ($3.25 Million for libel and $3.25 Million for slander), which the trial court ultimately lowered to $375,000.
Issues on Appeal
Mr. McElveen appealed the trial court's denial of his motion for a new trial on the basis that the trial court erred in ruling the award of punitive damages “…was not so grossly excessive as to shock the conscience of the court.” See McAlhaney, Shearouse Adv. Sh. 27 at 97.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's denial of Mr. McElveen's motion for a new trial.See McAlhaney, Shearouse Adv. Sh. 27 at 100-102.
Facts and Procedural History
“This appeal arose from a custody dispute between McElveen and his former daughter-in-law—Molly McCullers McElveen (McCullers)—over her two children, who are McElveen's grandchildren. When the custody dispute began, Matthew McAlhaney was dating McCullers. In an attempt to gain an advantage in the custody dispute, McElveen made allegations that McAlhaney was a drug addict, a child abuser, and a child molester. McElveen wrote a letter to Governor Mark Sanford alleging McAlhaney was a drug addict and had abused the children, and McElveen and his wife met with an investigator from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and accused McAlhaney of sexually abusing the children. Based on McElveen's accusations, the sheriff's office arrested McAlhaney, and he spent a night in jail before being released. Several weeks later, McElveen emailed the investigator and alleged that ‘numerous folks . . . say [McAlhaney] is gay, a deviant or capable of anything.'
After McAlhaney's arrest, McElveen told his neighbor that McAlhaney had been arrested for molesting one of the children. According to the neighbor, McElveen ‘seemed very thrilled, almost beaming about the fact that . . . McAlhaney had been arrested.' In addition, McElveen told a furniture salesperson—who testified she lived near McAlhaney's mother and had never met McElveen—that McAlhaney supplied drugs to McCullers, abused one or both of the children, and was a ‘deviant soul.' The solicitor's office investigated McElveen's allegations, but ultimately dismissed the charges against McAlhaney.
McAlhaney filed a lawsuit against McElveen for libel, slander, and abuse of process. A jury found in favor of McAlhaney and awarded him actual damages of $1,000 for libel, $61,000 for slander, and $25,000 for abuse of process. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages of $3.25 million on the libel cause of action and $3.25 million on the slander cause of action. McElveen moved for a new trial absolute, claiming ‘the verdicts were so excessive . . . as to shock the conscience of the court and clearly indicate that the figure reached was the result of passion, caprice, prejudice, partiality, corruption, or some other improper motives,' or—in the alternative—for a new trial nisi remittitur on the ground that the verdicts were ‘unduly excessive.'
The trial court denied the motion for a new trial. However, the court conducted a post-trial review of the punitive damages award and reduced it to a total of $375,000.”
A copy of the Court of Appeal's opinion in McAlhaney v. McElveen can be found here.
This publication is a general summary of law. It should in no way replace legal advice specific to your circumstances or in any way creates an attorney-client relationship.
© The Stevens Firm, P.A., 2015