State Courts Issue Libel Verdicts against Local Media Outlets

Pennsylvania Superior Court Upholds $3.5 Million Libel Verdict

A mid-level Pennsylvania appeals court upheld a $3.5 million libel verdict against a Pennsylvania newspaper Sept. 18, 2008, ruling that it negligently defamed a businessman and one of his companies.

The case, Joseph v. Scranton Times L.P., 2008 PA Super. 217, (Pa. Super. Ct. 2008) began in 2002 when Thomas Joseph sued the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice, its parent company, The Scranton Times, and former Voice reporter Edward Lewis over a series of stories published in 2001. The stories discussed several raids by state police and IRS agents at Joseph’s home and business relating to his potential connections to an organized crime family.

Joseph, who was never charged as a result of the investigation, claimed the paper defamed him by citing anonymous sources who linked him to suspected illegal activity. In November 2006, Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella awarded $2 million to Joseph and $1.5 million to one of his companies, Acumark Inc., a direct-mail marketing firm, for “either directly or implicitly indicating that [Joseph and his company] were engaged in a broad range of criminal enterprises uncovered by an investigation when in fact the investigation targeted other individuals and businesses.”

The trial court found that Joseph had proven that the stories were false, and that the Voice had published them with “want of reasonable care and diligence to ascertain the truth.”

The trial court testimony included that of Christopher Harper, a journalism professor at Temple University. Harper said that confidential and anonymous sources should be used only in very extreme cases, and that Lewis had violated the “journalistic code” of the Citizens’ Voice as well as generally accepted newsroom standards.

In addition, the lower court found that Joseph and his company were not limited-purpose public figures because the paper could not prove that they had “voluntarily thrust themselves into the vortex of the public controversy,” and therefore Joseph did not have to prove that the paper acted with “actual malice.”

The Voice appealed, arguing Joseph and his company failed to prove the articles were false and that an actual injury resulted from the allegedly defamatory statements.

Judge Zoran Popovich, writing for a three-judge panel of the appellate court, upheld the lower court ruling and held that “the ‘gist’ of the defamatory articles was not a fair and accurate summary of the federal investigation” and the articles “resulted in a falsehood” against Joseph and Acumark. The court also agreed that “the paper acted negligently in publishing the Defamatory Articles by failing to abide by their own journalistic code when using unnamed sources.”

Voice Publisher Scott Lynett said that the paper is “obviously very disappointed in the Superior Court’s ruling. We disagree with their findings and our attorneys are currently reviewing the opinion to decide on any appeal strategy,” according to a September 19 Associated Press (AP) story.

Montana Jury Issues $3.8 Million Judgment against Local Radio Host

A jury in Flathead County District Court in Kalispell, Mont. awarded $3.8 million to a father and son in a defamation action against local radio show host John Stokes. Stokes hosts a radio show on KGEZ, a radio station located south of Kalispell that he also owns, according to a September 18 AP story.

The jury awarded $900,000 to each of the plaintiffs for emotional and monetary damages and $2 million in punitive damages because the jury determined that Stokes acted with malicious intent. Montana state law defines slander as any false publication other than libel which “charges any person with crime or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime” or “tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade, or business,” Mont. Code Ann. section 27-1-803.

The plaintiffs, Davar and Todd Gardner, claimed Stokes made false statements about them on the air after they filed a separate lawsuit against him in 2001 regarding a disputed easement for radio towers owned by Stokes on the Gardners’ property, the story said.

The previous case was ultimately concluded by a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court in July 2007, in Anderson v. Stokes, 163 P.3d 1273 (Mont. 2007). The decision affirmed the lower court’s restriction of the extent of the easement, and required Stokes to take various steps to keep his broadcast equipment from interfering with the agricultural activities of the Andersons.

In the aftermath of the suit, Stokes suggested on his radio show that the Gardners had lied under oath during the litigation, had submitted a false affidavit, and committed bank fraud by obtaining a loan under false conditions, according to the AP. Stokes later admitted all three claims were false.

The Gardners filed their defamation suit in November 2007 after their requests for a retraction were ignored, according to a September 17 story in the Flathead Beacon, a local newspaper.

Stokes admitted that he had made the statements about the Gardners on air and that all three statements were false, but contended he took the appropriate steps to verify their accuracy and was exercising his right to free speech, according to the September 17 Beacon story.

“Out of 4,600 hours of being on the air, I screwed up for three minutes,” Stokes said on his radio show after the verdict, according to a September 25 story in the Flathead Beacon. “So what I learned yesterday, and so many of us will, is that what previously was believed to be First Amendment protected rights, rights of the press to report things as they see it, now costs $3.8 million.”

“We are ecstatic about it,” Todd Gardner said of the verdict in the September 17 Flathead Beacon. “We know we’ll probably never see a dollar, but the more important thing is the message it sends to the valley about what’s right and wrong. Just because you have a microphone doesn’t mean you can attack someone.”

Stokes initially said he planned to file an appeal, but said later on his show that he might seek a settlement instead, the Beacon reported. “What we’d rather do is sit down and settle this thing with all parties involved,” Stokes said on the show, according to a September 25 story in the Flathead Beacon. “We’re not going out of business. The towers are still standing.”

– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 14, 2009 12:06 PM.

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