Chatham County Deacon Awarded $125,000 for False Accusations by Pastor

On February 8, 2011, a Chatham County jury found in favor of a church deacon who claimed he was defamed by the visiting pastor of his church. After one and a half hours of deliberation, the jury awarded the plaintiff $125,000 for damage to his reputation and emotional distress.

Edward Heyward was accused of theft from his church and of having multiple affairs with female parishioners by Daniel Giles, a visiting pastor. Giles made his accusations against the eighty-five-year-old retired deacon and founding member of the church by reading them to the congregation. At trial, Giles claimed that was privileged under his church’s canonical law and that his position at the Baptist church provided him with immunity. Moreover, Giles claimed that his accusations against Heyward were truthful and thus not defamatory. Giles has appealed the verdict.

In Georgia, defamation will be found when the defendant has made some false statement about the plaintiff to a third party absent a privilege to do so. It must usually be shown that the statements caused harm to the plaintiff, but in some cases harm is assumed. When a defendant has falsely claimed that the plaintiff engaged in a criminal act, accused him of sexual immorality, or made statements intended to harm him professionally, the statement is considered defamatory per se. If that is the case, the jury will need to consider the circumstances of the case and determine the proper amount of money to compensate the plaintiff for his injury.

Awards