Big Audience Justifies Big Damages in Defamation Lawsuit Against Trump

Donald Trump’s motion for a new trial and to set aside the jury’s verdict in his defamation case lacks merit, a New York judge recently ruled. Citing the frequency with which Trump has made defamatory statements, the extensive reach of those statements, and the fact that he continued making the statements even throughout trial, the court ruled that the $83.3 million damages award was not unconstitutional and did not merit a new trial.

We previously wrote about the large compensatory and punitive damages awards that the jury assessed against Trump, explaining that those awards underscore what would seem to be an intuitive best practice to minimize defamation liability: once a defendant has been found liable for defamation, they should refrain from repeating the same defamatory statements.

Trump’s trial now highlights two additional principles to consider in connection with defamation claims. First, a jury may use the defendant’s conduct throughout a trial as the basis for damages. Second, if a defendant makes defamatory statements to attack adversaries and those statements reach a large number of people, the defendant risks increased damages. Defendants who make defamatory statements using an unusually large megaphone risk large damages awards.


In May 2023, a New York jury found that Trump had sexually assaulted E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s and that Trump’s continued denials of the sexual assault and related statements had defamed Carroll. Despite the May 2023 trial verdict, Trump continued to make similar defamatory statements. In January 2024, a jury in a parallel defamation proceeding awarded Carroll $18.3 million in compensatory damages and an additional $65 million in punitive damages, totaling $83.3 million.

After the verdict, Trump filed a motion seeking a new trial and to set aside the verdict. Trump argued that the damages award was excessive and that errors at the trial tainted the verdict. In Trump’s view, the judge instructed jurors improperly about the burden of proof needed to show malice and erred in striking testimony about his state of mind. Specifically, Trump took issue with the court’s decision to strike Trump’s testimony that he “just wanted to defend [himself], [his] family, and frankly, the presidency.” That testimony, Trump asserted, was relevant to whether he had acted maliciously and excluding it “all but assured” a big punitive damages award.

The Court’s Reasoning

Judge Kaplan rejected Trump’s arguments. First, the court held that the compensatory damages award of $18.3 million was not excessive. Trump’s “malicious and unceasing attacks on Ms. Carroll were disseminated to more than 100 million people,” the court explained, which not only endangered Ms. Carroll’s health and safety but also “derailed the career, reputation, and emotional well-being of one of America’s most successful and prominent advice columnists and authors.” The court focused on two characteristics of these attacks: first, Trump (the publisher of the statements) has a very high profile as the former president; and second, Trump’s defamatory statements were particularly “widespread and destructive” — they were disseminated to “more than 100 million people.” The court also noted that the compensatory damages award was “far from a historical anomaly in New York, before even considering the unique scale of the defamation at hand.”

The court also held that the jury’s punitive damages award of $65 million was not excessive. In so holding, the court considered “three guideposts” that the US Supreme Court established concerning the constitutional review of punitive damages awards: (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s actions, (2) the disparity between the harm or potential harm and the size of the punitive award, and (3) the difference between the remedy in this case and the penalties imposed in comparable cases.[1] Each of those factors, the court reasoned, justified the jury’s punitive damages award against Trump.

In so finding, the court focused on the degree of reprehensibility of Trump’s actions, which the jury was entitled to find was “remarkably high, [and] perhaps unprecedented.” It was possible, the court explained, that the jury could have found that Trump “wielded his position as arguably the most powerful and famous man in the world to broadcast his lies to millions of dedicated followers” to destroy Carroll’s credibility, to punish her, and to deter other women from coming forward with their experiences. The defamation continued “even during the course of trial,” and Trump’s demeanor and conduct in the courtroom itself “put his hatred and disdain on full display.” Therefore, the jury may have imposed the substantial punitive damages award to deter Trump from engaging in similar behavior.


The damages that Trump incurred for defaming Carroll provide useful guidance regarding basic principles of defamation liability. To avoid incurring defamation damages like those assessed against Trump, defendants should strive not to mimic Trump’s conduct.

In particular, defamation defendants should stop making defamatory statements, ideally beginning at least once they are on notice of potential defamation liability but definitely after they are found liable for defamation. Defamation defendants should also consider that their behavior during court proceedings and at trial may affect the size of any damages award against them. Finally, defamation defendants whose statements have the potential to reach a great number of people should understand that the broad reach of their defamatory statements may justify a proportionately large damages award.

[1] BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (1996).


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