A True Story from Fitzwilliam, NH
In 2012, Lorraine and Peter MacDonald purchased a vacation home by the water in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire – an “idyllic” spot. Unbeknownst to them, hell lay just around the corner.
As reported in the recent New Hampshire Supreme Court decision of MacDonald et al. v Jacobs (January 15, 2019), one Lisa Jacobs lived nearby in a family-owned property. Ms. Jacobs began a letter writing campaign accusing the MacDonalds of attempted murder, being liars and sociopaths, running a deceptive rental business, engaging in witness tampering and stalking, using illegal drugs, being alcoholics, driving drunk, and vandalizing her house. The MacDonalds feared for their lives, became anxious being in their own yard, lost sleep, had knots in their stomachs, and jumped “out of [their] chairs” when they heard a car coming down the road. So they sued.
The trial court found that the defendant, Lisa Jacobs, did indeed make all these statements, but the MacDonalds did not introduce evidence showing that anyone understood the statements to be defamatory. Sure, the statements were made, and they were false, but where is the proof of harm? Furthermore, the MacDonalds did not introduce evidence of monetary damages. (Usually, when one accuses another of causing harm, the plaintiff also needs to prove the wrongful act also cause actual damages, such as monetary loss (medical bills, lost business revenue, and the like).) Ms. Jacobs, therefore, asked the case be dismissed. Both the trial court and the supreme court thought otherwise.
When someone accuses another of a crime, or with activities which would tend to injure the person’s trade or business, the victim need not introduce evidence of actual damages. This sort of defamation is called slander or libel per se, and a victim may recover all damages “which would normally result from such a defamation, such as harm to one’s reputation.”
The jury went further and also awarded enhanced damages against Ms. Jacobs because she acted with “actual malice,” which the court defined as ill will, hatred, hostility or evil motive.
Perhaps most fitting, the trial court also ordered Ms. Jacobs removed from her family’s property in Fitzwilliam, thus securing the peace the MacDonlds sought from their vacation home.
In one strange way, an extreme situation like this one is better than a lower-level annoyance from a neighbor because the MacDonalds ended up with an injunction, but the price was high. This decision, however, may embolden other people who suffer similar attacks to fight back.