The Connecticut Supreme Court Monday dismissed a small company’s $18.3 million defamation claim against the state that became an issue in the U.S Senate campaign of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in 2010.
Conservatives said the case, which pitted the state against a small computer supply company accused of fraud, was an example of Blumenthal’s willingness to trample on the reputation of business owners in pursuit of publicity.
A jury had awarded the company, Computers Plus Center, $18.3 million in damages, finding that the state had defamed the company and violated its due-process rights in a dispute over whether Computers Plus had defrauded the state. A trial judge reduced the award to $1.83 million.
The state and the company each appealed, with the state challenging the company’s right to sue, and the company challenging the trial court’s decision to limit damages to just 10 percent of the jury award.
On Monday, the Supreme Court delivered a victory to the state, albeit one that offered no opinion on the substance of the claims and counter-claims raised in a legal fight that put Computers Plus out of business.
The court’s decision focused on the narrow question of whether the state, by suing the company for civil damages, had waived the immunity against civil lawsuits generally enjoyed by public officials and state agencies.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr., the state’s highest court concluded that sovereign immunity protected the state in the case. It set aside the reduced $1.83 million damage award, and dismissed all claims by Computers Plus.
Brett J. Boskiewicz, who represented Computers Plus and its owner, Gina Kolb, declined comment.
Attorney General George Jepsen, who succeeded Blumenthal as attorney general, praised the decision as upholding the state’s well-established process for claims against the state: filing a complaint with a claims commission, not a lawsuit in Superior Court.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed with our position that the verdict against the state in this case should not stand,” Jepsen said. “The court is correct in its conclusion that the state does not waive its sovereign immunity simply by initiating litigation against a private party.”
Jepsen called the opinion “a significant victory for the state’s taxpayers, who will not be left on the hook for costs based on a verdict that we maintained was outside the law.“
The opinion ends a decade of litigation that became a political issue, one mainly raised by conservative opinion writers.
In 2002, the state’s Department of Information Technology complained that Computers Plus had charged the state for features not installed in computer equipment delivered to the state.
State police opened a criminal investigation, and Blumenthal eventually held a press conference to announce the filing of civil litigation against the company for damages.
Kolb counter-sued, accusing the state of defamation that destroyed her business.
Shortly after Blumenthal was revealed to have misstated his Vietnam era military record, the Wall Street Journal referred to the computer case on its opinion pages as “The Other Blumenthal Scandal.”
Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator, wrote about the case, describing Blumenthal as a “hyperactive, publicity-mad lunatic.”
Blumenthal, who defended his lawsuit and his public comments in the case, did not suffer politically, easily defeating Republican Linda McMahon in a race for the open seat created by the retirement of Sen. Chris Dodd.