$500K awarded in slander lawsuit

A Twiggs County jury has awarded a Houston County woman more than $500,000 in damages and attorney’s fees after her former pastor told the congregation in 2006 that she had committed some form of “fornication.”

The lawsuit was filed by Angela Driver against the Rev. Mark Fogarty, pastor of First United Pentecostal Church, 603 Wellborn Road, Warner Robins. Fogarty lives in Twiggs County, where the lawsuit was filed in 2008.

The lawsuit sought a jury trial, which was held in Twiggs County last week.

The jury awarded Driver $245,000 in compensation, $236,241.68 in attorney’s fees and $45,000 in punitive damages, according to the July 2 jury verdict form.

According to the lawsuit, Fogarty made a statement about Driver in front of the congregation during a Tuesday night service July 25, 2006, before announcing that his daughter, Carrie Fogarty, and Driver’s ex-husband, James Driver, “were going to be romantically involved.” Carrie Fogarty and James Driver later married in November 2006, the lawsuit stated. Angela and James Driver had divorced in April 2006.

According to the lawsuit, the Rev. Mark Fogarty made a “false and defamatory statement” to the congregation in which he defined acts of fornication and then stated, “I have personal knowledge that I will not go into at this time ... that Angela has committed one of these acts (that constitutes fornication).”

“The statements were made and calculated to harm the plaintiff and to justify defendant’s daughter’s relationship with James Driver, who was previously divorced from plaintiff, and to obtain the church congregation’s approval of the relationship between James Driver and Reverend Fogarty’s daughter,” the lawsuit stated.

The pastor’s statements were confirmed by other congregation members and by an audiotaped recording of the evening service, according to the lawsuit.

Barbara Marschalk, an Atlanta attorney representing Fogarty, said in a written statement: “We are disappointed in the verdict against our client based on statements he made to his congregation about his interpretation of the Bible.

“We do not believe that the verdict is supported by the law or the facts, and in particular the law concerning the separation of church and state. We are considering with our client the various post-trial and appeal options that are available and think that further comment at this point would not be appropriate.”

According to a defense motion filed before the trial, the pastor was explaining to the church body why was he was giving James Driver the biblical permission to remarry and discussed that the Bible allows divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery and fornication. He explained that the biblical definition of fornication includes more than sex outside of marriage. He told the congregation he had given James Driver permission to remarry because Angela Driver had committed one act of fornication, the motion states.

While the statement to the congregation was not contested by the defense, what was contested was whether the court had jurisdiction, whether Fogarty’s statements were actionable as “slander per se” and whether a claim for slander with no proof of special damages could be sustained, according to the defense motion.

One of the reasons the pastor gave James Driver as grounds to biblically remarry was that James Driver once found his then-wife Angela Driver wearing a bikini at a swimming pool while with the husband of a mutual friend. The pastor felt that constituted exhibitionism and met the biblical definition of fornication, according to the defense summary.

However, the acts given the congregation that constituted fornication accused Angela Driver of adultery, and the use of the term “fornication” imputed immorality to Angela Driver, the lawsuit stated.

John Flanders Kennedy, a Macon attorney who represented Angela Driver, noted jurors found that the pastor could not make slanderous comments and then hide behind the pulpit. Kennedy said Angela Driver was accused in front of the congregation in effect of nine acts that ranged from bestiality to prostitution to child molestation because the pastor never named which one she actually was accused of doing.

Moreover, Fogarty’s issues with Angela Driver were that she was not submissive and she wore clothing that he believed was immodest, including skirts above the knee, Kennedy said.

Kennedy added that Angela Driver attempted to resolve the issue out of court, asking for a retraction and apology from the pastor and the state district board for the church but was forced to file the lawsuit after neither was given.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.