Attorney Benjamin Skjold and law student Carl Engstrom may have put their finger on the cause of the bizarre verdict in the Johnny Northside case that came down about a week ago. For those not familiar with the case, the Defendant John Hoff (who blogs under the pseudonym Johnny Northside) wrote a post regarding the University of Minnesota’s decision to hire Plaintiff Jerry Moore and Moore’s apparent involvement in a fraudulent mortgage. The post resulted in Moore being fired by the university. Moore sued Hoff for defamation, intentional interference with contract and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage in Hennepin County.
What has surprised the legal community in Minnesota is that Moore won. The judge tossed all but one of the allegedly defamatory statements and the jury determined that since Hoff’s statement was not false, no defamation had occurred. Nonetheless, the jury found Hoff liable on both interference counts. This is a head scratcher, whereas one of the elements of intentional interference with contract/prospective business advantage is that the interference is without justification. If the jury believed the statement at issue to be true, then it is difficult to conceive how stating an objectively true fact could be improper interference with the contractual relationship of another.
Skjold and Engstrom may have found the reason for the jury’s confusion. The special verdict form (which is posted in the Skjold Engstrom blog post) contains no mention of the justification element. It merely asks if Hoff intentionally interfered with Moore’s employment contract and if Hoff interfered with Moore’s prospective employment advantage-one single question for each count.
We don’t know what was contained in the jury instructions or whether Hoff’s counsel objected to the wording of the special verdict form. The verdict goes to show, however, just how important the verdict form can be in a trial. Often times, you’re asking a lot to expect a jury to pour over their jury instructions the way we as attorneys might in the same situation. What matters most is how the question is framed. From the perspective of a defendant’s counsel, it is best to ensure that there are as many questions for each count as possible. That way, you ensure that the jury fully considers whether the Plaintiff has met his or her burden of proof on each element without glossing over important details. The more questions that require an affirmative answer there are on the verdict form, the more likely it is that a “no” will appear in answer to one of the questions. By no means should there have been one single question for each interference count on the verdict form in this case. For example, with respect to intentional interference with contract, one might include the following questions (or some variation of them):
- Did a contract exist between Moore and the University of Minnesota?
- If your answer to Question 1 is yes, then answer this question. Did Hoff induce or otherwise cause the University of Minnesota not to perform this contract?
- If your answers to Questions 1 and 2 are yes, then answer this question. Did Hoff intend to induce or otherwise cause the University of Minnesota not to perform this contract?
- If your answers to Questions 1 through 3 are yes, then answer this question. Was Hoff’s inducement or causation of the University of Minnesota not to perform this contract improper?
- If your answers to Questions 1 through 4 are yes, then answer this question. Did Hoff’s inducement or causation of the University of Minnesota not to perform this contract cause Moore damages?
As Skjold and Engstrom correctly note, as a matter of law, giving a person truthful information is not “improper interference.” Hopefully this statement of law appeared in the jury instructions, but even if it did, one could always formulate a question on the truthfulness of the information in the context of an improper interference count.
It is difficult to break down an entire trial in a newspaper article, so it is entirely possible that Moore presented evidence at trial that would support the jury’s verdict. It seems more likely, however, that the jury did not properly understand what was being asked of it.