2L Carl Engstrom Co-Authors Article Cited by ABA Journal
MARCH 31, 2011—On March 16, 2011, the ABA Journal Web site cited an article co-authored by attorney Benjamin Skjold of Skjold Parrington and Carl Engstrom (’12), a law clerk at the firm, entitled, “Free Speech Threat or Misled Jury? Verdict Against Blogger ‘Johnny Northside’ Likely the Result of a Flawed Special Verdict Form.”
Engstrom and Skjold’s article, published on the firm’s Web site, discussed the case of Moore v. Hoff (No. 27-CF-09-17778), heard March 11 in Hennepin County Fourth District Court. John Hoff, a local blogger also known as “Johnny Northside,” had written about the University of Minnesota’s hiring of Jerry Moore and Moore’s apparent involvement in high-profile mortgage fraud. Hoff’s post led to Moore’s termination by the University the following day, and Moore sued Hoff for defamation, tortious interference with contract, and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.
The jury found that Hoff’s statements were not false, defeating the defamation claim; however, it found Hoff liable on the last two counts. The case soon gained national attention because of its potential implications regarding free speech for bloggers.
In their article, Engstrom and Skjold contended that the Special Verdict Form, a questionnaire the jury fills out in reaching its verdict, was the source of the confusing and troublesome verdict. The form omitted a critical element of the tort requiring that the interference be not only intentional but also "improper,” and that under Minnesota law, a defendant cannot improperly interfere with a contract by making truthful statements.
Engstrom and Skjold’s article was the first to uncover the problem with the Special Verdict Form and explain its effects. Although the form is a public document and therefore not confidential, it was not readily available to the public, and Engstrom and Skjold went to some lengths to obtain a copy.
Martha Neil cited the Engstrom and Skjold article in her online ABA Journal story, “Firestorm re $60K Award Against Blogger, Despite Lack of Defamation, May Be Focusing on Wrong Issue.” She used the article to explain why the verdict “may be more revealing about a seeming flaw in the special verdict form than the status of tort law concerning news articles about matters of public concern.”
Minnesota Lawyer blogger Brett Clark also cited the article, on March 21 in “Is the Special Verdict Form to Blame for the Johnny Northside Verdict?” Engstrom and Skjold “may have put their finger on the cause of the bizarre verdict,” Clark said.
Engstrom and Skjold’s article might ease bloggers’ concerns, too. Closer inspection of the case “reveals that this may be the result of a confused jury award based upon the technicalities in the law contained in the Special Verdict Form, and not a commentary on the free speech rights of bloggers,” they write.