This matter comes before the court on defendants' motion for a new trial.
Plaintiff sought damages against the defendants alleging that the defendants had conspired to destroy his career, and further that each of the defendants had made certain slanderous statements about him. Defendants denied any conspiracy and they further denied that any of them had made slanderous statements concerning the plaintiff. Furthermore, defendants contended that any statements that were alleged to have been made were true. The trial commenced January 4, 1950, and concluded February 3, 1950, with the jury bringing in the following verdict:
"We find for the Plaintiff, against Martin Dolan, the sum of $100.00 compensatory damages and the sum of $1,000 punitive damages.
"We find for the Plaintiff against Helen Dolan the sum of $100.00 compensatory damages and the sum of $1,000 punitive damages.
"We find for the Plaintiff against Paul Etter the sum of $100.00 compensatory damages and $3,000.00 punitive damages."
Defendants advanced numerous reasons for setting aside the verdict but at the argument abandoned them all, except that the court erred in directing the jury to return for further deliberations after it had delivered one verdict.
At the conclusion of the trial and summations of counsel, the court charged the jury the rules as to slander and informed the jury that the words, if they found them to have been spoken by the defendants, were slanderous per se and that the plaintiff would be entitled to damages without proof of special damages. The court also defined compensatory and punitive damages. No exceptions were taken as to these parts of the charge. The jury, after deliberating approximately eight hours, returned to the courtroom and the forelady stated as follows:
"We find for the Plaintiff against Paul Etter the sum of no compensatory damages; in the sum of $3,000 punitive damages; we find for the Plaintiff against Martin Dolan the sum of no compensatory damages; in the sum of $1,000 punitive damages; we find for the Plaintiff against Helen Dolan, the sum of no compensatory damages and the sum of $1,000 punitive damages."
The court refused to receive the verdict as above found because it was not one that the jury, under the charge of the court, was at liberty to render, and the jury was sent back to reconsider the case in its entirety, with the direction that, in the event they found for plaintiff, to find an amount for compensatory damages. The court based its action on the ground that in defamatory actions where the words uttered are slanderous per se the plaintiff is entitled to general damages. Walsh v. Trenton Times, Inc. , 124 N.J.L. 23 (E. & A. 1939). The jury, after retiring, asked again to be instructed on compensatory and punitive damages, which instruction was given. Sometime later the jury returned its verdict which is set forth in the beginning of this opinion.
Defendants argue that the court was bound to accept the jury's verdict as originally rendered, and at the same time make the contradictory point that the verdict, as originally rendered, was ...