Texas high court lets stand defamation ruling against Alvarado cafe owner

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012  Print Reprints

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The owner of Frank's Place cafe in Alvarado will probably have to fork over $5,000 to a former customer who sued her for publicly implying that he was gay.

The Texas Supreme Court declined to review an appeal by cafe owner Phong Van Meter, and let stand lower court rulings that found she defamed former customer Bennie Dale Morris and caused him mental anguish and emotional distress.

"I'm really excited, but I'm surprised this case went as far as it did for $5,000," said Bill Conover of Cleburne, Morris' attorney. Conover said an appeals court ruling in Morris' case could play a part in how defamation cases are decided in Texas.

Norman Maples, an attorney representing Van Meter, did not return calls seeking comment.

Van Meter said she had not spoken to Maples and was unaware of the Supreme Court decision, issued Friday.The Supreme Court is Texas' highest court for civil cases.

The case

The legal battle between Morris and Van Meter, who were once friends, began three years ago when Morris sued her.

Morris, who often ate with his friend Glen Warren, sometimes went to Frank's Place three times a day.

According to the suit, Van Meter often yelled to Morris and Warren, "Where's your husband?" "Where's your wife?" implying that they were gay. This was done in front of other customers, who sometimes laughed.

The men testified that Van Meter never said they were gay but that the implication was made.

Van Meter said that it was just joking between friends and that she was simply responding to jokes and comments from Morris asking about her husband.

Morris said that the continual comments embarrassed him and that he worried about his grandchildren eventually hearing the rumors.

"Litigation centers"

A state district judge in Johnson County and the 10th Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Morris. Van Meter appealed the decisions to the Texas Supreme Court, saying Morris didn't have enough evidence to prove she had defamed him.

There were some questions that the case concerned gay rights, Conover said, but it was about someone being humiliated over and over again.

In his brief to the Supreme Court, Van Meter's attorney wrote that the lower court rulings would mean that joking remarks, hasty words said in anger and mischievous statements would be actionable torts and would turn barbershops, taverns and small-town restaurants into "litigation centers."

Van Meter's friends have said she goes out of her way to help people, often letting people eat free if they didn't have money. She would never hurt anyone, they said.

Van Meter said her customers -- including Morris and Warren -- were like family, and she didn't understand how they could be "so mean."

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696

Twitter: @fwstliz