Harvard Grad at Center of $222.7 Million Suit

A jury ruled on March 20 that an article published in the Wall Street Journal was libelous and recommended the paper pay $222.7 million dollars, the largest such award in history.

Written by Laura Jereski '83, a former Crimson editor, the article alleged that the MMAR Group Inc., a Houston-based investment firm, was misusing funds to entertain potential clients in topless bars.

Mark Halwell, a lawyer for the plaintiff, said the libel led to the collapse of the company.

"It absolutely closed the business," Halwell said. "It wasn't that she got bad information. The information that she got did not support what she wrote."

The jury agreed with Halwell and decided that five of the eight statements entered into question were false and constituted libel.

The final award decision will be determined by the judge presiding over the case, who will assess the jury's recommendation.

"I don't expect it to be lower [than the jury's award]," Halwell said.

"The reporter was responsible for the publication, and I believe that she either knew the statements were false or had serious doubts," he added.

The jury also ruled that Jereski pay $20,000 in punitive damages.

Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, said he hoped the award will be substantially reduced.

"We were chronicling the difficulties of this company; we did not cause them," Steiger said.

The current award would have a devastating effect on the newspaper, which made $190 million dollars in the last fiscal year.

MMAR's shareholders agreed to split any award they receive from the case with former employees of the company.

Jereski refused to comment on the case and referred questions to her lawyer.

The Wall Street Journal's lawyer could not be reached for comment on the case.

Jereski is still employed by the newspaper, and in a show of support, the Journal has not taken any disciplinary action against her.

Nevin I. Shalit '83, a former Crimson editor, worked closely with Jereski as an undergraduate.

"Every Tuesday night, we worked together until about three in the morning," said Shalit. "She was a very good writer, she worked hard and was always professional."

But Halwell had a very different perspective on Jereski's undergraduate experience.

"She never learned anything about journalism standards at Harvard," Halwell said. "I understand that you don't have any journalism classes, and I think that you all could benefit from them.