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Michael Gill defamation case: Juror explains the reasoning behind the $274m penalty

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 21. 2017 10:02PM
From left, Andy Crews, Dick Anagnost and William Grenier speak on Sept. 29, 2017, after a Merrimack County jury awarded the three Manchester-area businessmen a total of $274.5 million in damages in their defamation suit against mortgage broker Michael Gill. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

Michael Gill

If you drove by the Mortgage Specialist electronic billboard in the past 14 months or so - and who in southern New Hampshire hasn't? - you put a dollar in the pocket of three Manchester-area businessmen.

Did you view one of Michael Gill's rants on Facebook against the three? Chalk up another dollar.

Click a link to his "State of Corruption" website? Add another dollar.

A juror in the landmark defamation trial against Gill and Mortgage Specialists said each set of eyeballs that saw a defamation amounted to a single dollar. The clock started on Aug. 4, 2016, the day a judge warned Gill that he was opening himself up to damages if he continued his defamations.

That's the basis for the $274.5 million that jurors awarded AutoFair auto dealer Andy Crews, Manchester developer Dick Anagnost and Primary Bank founder William Greiner in late September, potentially the largest jury award in New Hampshire history.

"We didn't want to just come up with a number," said Ben Dick, a Hooksett resident and English teacher at Manchester Memorial High School who sat on the jury. "It (the award) is based on the reach of the message. I spent a lot of time personally doing math in the deliberation room." Dick spoke at length with the New Hampshire Sunday News last week about the trial.

A judge had earlier determined that Gill and his company defamed the three with unsubstantiated allegations of drug trafficking, money laundering and gun-running. The jury's job was to listen to testimony about the defamations and to come up with an award.

Gill was a no-show once the trial started, and he hired no lawyer to defend him.

"I was waiting every day. I thought 'this might be the day he shows up,'?" Dick said.

Dick also said that the trial made several jurors nervous. Not only were Crews, Anagnost and Greiner on the billboards, Gill used his website to target a New Hampshire Union Leader reporter .

And the jury also saw Facebook responses to Gill's post. Some urged Gill to publish the addresses of Crews and the others and let karma take over. Another posted a picture of a gallows. Another said let's JFK them, a social media abbreviation where the last letter refers to "kill."

"It's not (Gill) as much as the people who reply to him," Dick said.

Philosophically, Dick said, Gill's rants are a reflection of a society where political discussions on social media deteriorate into personal attacks, and President Donald Trump takes to Twitter to attack anyone who disagrees with him.

"It's a new mind-set. It all goes together. It's a different world," said Dick, who is 39 and once headed the Manchester teachers' union.

The defense table sat empty during the first day of testimony last month at the defamation trial against Michael Gill, who walked out of the courtroom that day. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

Under instructions from Judge Brian Tucker, the jury could award three kinds of damages:

. The easiest was termed special damages. It represented actual losses the defendant could attribute to the defamation. For Crews, it was declining car sales in a growing economy. For Anagnost, it was a lost development deal and lower motorcycle sales at his Harley-Davidson dealership.

. The formula applied to general damages, which refer to harm to reputation or emotional distress. Dick said the jury relied on daily traffic counts for South Willow Street in Manchester (110,000), Route 101A in Nashua (34,000) and Main Street in Plaistow (20,000). Multiply each by 421 days. Then add the 9.9 million visitors to Gill's website that he had bragged about. And then tally the Facebook views and shares, about 18 million, on posts that were introduced into evidence. Altogether, it amounts to roughly 100 million sets of eyeballs. Dick said they rounded it out to $35 million per defendant. 

. The final category - liberal compensatory damages - are awarded when the jury decides the defamation was malicious, wanton or part of an evil intent. The plaintiff's lead attorney, Steven Gordon, had suggested that the jury double the special damages. But Dick said that would bring each plaintiff's award to nine figures. So they took the $35 million and, again rounding, added about a half to it, bringing the compensatory damages to $50 million. 

So each defendant received $85 million, plus whatever special damages they proved.

"We couldn't wrap our head around $85 million, much less $100 million," he said.

What bothered Dick the most were claims that the three made money off selling drugs. 

"That really amplified my idea of good versus bad here," Dick said.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the three have returned to court and filed several requests with the judge:

. For attorney fees, which Gill has not responded to.

. To stop the defamatory statements, which continue on billboards in Nashua and Plaistow. Gill has not responded in time, and lawyers are waiting for a judge to order Gill to stop further defamations.

. To attach accounts they believe Gill holds in numerous institutions: Bank of America, Santander Bank, Citizens Bank, Enterprise Bank, People's United Bank and E-Trade. The judge has granted the motion, and the financial institutions have 30 days to supply a report of the accounts to the judge, said Tim McLaughlin, one of the attorneys in the case.

. To attach Gill's real estate at 67 and 69 Conleys Grove Road in Derry, and a 2010 Bentley, a 2002 Mercedes and a 1994 Dodge Viper.

McLaughlin said he recognizes the fear that some jurors experienced in the trial. But when the system, despite the time it takes, finally works, it makes him happy to be a lawyer.

"I'm thankful," he said, "that the jury stood there and said: 'No, we're not going to live like this in this state.'"

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