Appeal by defendant from Cornelius, Judge. Judgment entered 24 March 1981 in Superior Court, Cleveland County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 2 April 1982.
Hill, Judge. Judge Becton concurs. Judge Wells concurs in result.
Plaintiff instituted this action to recover actual and punitive damages resulting from "slanderous and defamatory statements" made by defendant. Defendant's answer asserted truth as a defense.
Plaintiff's evidence tended to show that she worked for the School Food Service of the Cleveland County Board of Education. She did secretarial work and bookkeeping. She prepared checks for the School Food Service employees by using the computer in the central office of the Board of Education; however, she did so under the direction of Peggy Fuller. Peggy Fuller was the computer operator for the Board of Education, and she prepared the payroll checks for all employees other than those in the School Food Service. Plaintiff was not trained to operate the computer, she could not operate it on her own, and she was afraid of it. Peggy Fuller resigned her position effective 30 April 1980. On 1
May 1980, plaintiff was asked to use the computer to prepare the payroll for all ten-month employees of the Board. She responded that she did not know how to do this. Later that day, plaintiff was summoned to the office of defendant, Jerry Lee Blake, who was the superintendent of the county school system. Plaintiff told defendant that she did not know how to do the payroll. Defendant told plaintiff that she would do the job requested as best she could or else. Plaintiff testified that she asked defendant whether "or else" meant that she would be fired, that defendant said that it did, and that she left defendant's office with the understanding that she had been fired. Defendant, who was called to testify for plaintiff, testified that he told plaintiff that "or else" meant that she would be choosing not to work for the Board, that plaintiff then said that she quit, and that he regarded plaintiff as having resigned from her job. Michael Goforth, a reporter for the Shelby Daily Star, telephoned defendant on 2 May 1980 to ask some questions. Defendant told the reporter that two people had resigned and that "[a]ny claim Mrs. Tallent was fired is false." This statement was quoted in a newspaper article.
Defendant moved for a directed verdict at the close of plaintiff's evidence. Among other grounds, he argued that his statement to the reporter was in no way slanderous or defamatory and that plaintiff had failed either to allege or prove special damages. The trial judge allowed a directed verdict as to plaintiff's claim for punitive damages, but he otherwise denied the motion. Defendant presented no evidence and renewed his motion which again was denied.
The judge submitted two issues as to liability, which were stated and answered as follows:
1. Did the defendant, Jerry Lee Blake, slander the plaintiff, Rhonda Walker Tallent?
2. Were the statements concerning the plaintiff, Rhonda Walker Tallent, true?
The jury set actual damages at $1,500.00. Defendant moved for judgment notwithstanding the ...