A Flathead County District Court jury decided Wednesday night that local radio host John Stokes knowingly made false, on-air comments about Davar and Todd Gardner and awarded the Gardners damages totaling $3.8 million.
The jury said Stokes’ broadcast remarks caused $900,000 in emotional and monetary damages to each of the Gardners. Because the jury also said Stokes made the comments with malicious intent, they were asked to go back to deliberation and determine if there should be punitive damages as well. They returned about an hour later and awarded an additional $2 million.
“We are ecstatic about it,” Todd Gardner said. “We know we’ll probably never see a dollar, but the more important thing is the message it sends to the valley about what’s right and wrong. Just because you have a microphone doesn’t mean you can attack someone.”
Davar Gardner and his son Todd sued the KGEZ radio talk show host and station owner over three broadcast remarks he made about them in 2007. These comments included claims that the Gardners lied under oath during a previous lawsuit with Stokes; that the Gardners submitted a false affidavit during the same litigation; and that the Gardners committed bank fraud when obtaining a $900,000 loan from Glacier Bank.
Prior to the trial, Stokes conceded that he had made the accusations in question on air and that all three statements were false, but contended he took the appropriate steps to verify their accuracy and was exercising his right to free speech.
There were a series of odd delays throughout the evening as the jury deliberated and announced its decisions.
Stokes was not present when the initial verdict was announced. Before the jury retired for deliberations, Judge Katherine Curtis had told the plaintiffs and defendant to stay within 20 minutes of the courthouse and that they would be notified when a decision was made. Stokes, however, drove to the Bigfork area where he was without cell phone service, according to his attorney Gregory Paskell.
After waiting almost an hour Judge Curtis continued the trial. “We’ll proceed in his absence,” she said. “I can’t justify keeping jurors waiting for an hour.”
Stokes arrived about 30 minutes later, at which point the court was able to continue with a short hearing before the jury made its decision on punitive damages.
When the punitive award was announced, Stokes evoked his right to poll the jury and opened a notepad. A member of the jury interrupted the proceedings, asked to speak to a bailiff and the entire jury left the courtroom. The bailiff relayed that several members of the jury were concerned Stokes would copy down their name and vote and were worried about what he would do with that information.
After a brief discussion with Stokes, Judge Curtis called the jury back in and told them, “I’ve been assured your names will not be used by any of the parties for any purposes whatsoever.”
The defamation trial stems from a long-running legal dispute between Stokes and the Gardners, who own a recreation-vehicle store and an auction barn near the radio station.
In 2001, the two parties disagreed over ownership rights for a 160-acre parcel of which Doug Anderson and the Gardners each own segments and where Stokes has property easements. Two of the station’s radio towers are on the property, which is located south of Kalispell near U.S. Highway 93. The Gardners and Anderson won the case in 2005. Stokes appealed to the state Supreme Court, but was rejected last year.
Since then, Stokes has criticized the Gardners on his morning talk radio show. The Gardners recorded broadcasts where their names were mentioned and, when their requests for a retraction were ignored, filed the defamation lawsuit against Stokes.
Stokes declined to comment after the trial, but during the brief hearing before punitive damages were decided said the $1.8 million awarded at that point was already more than he could pay. “I’d have to bankrupt the corporation and go out of business,” he said.
When asked if he’d continue making comments about the Gardners on his show, he replied, “Only if they keep harassing me with lawsuit after lawsuit, but I have no intention to go after them.”
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