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$2 million libel award against The Boston Globe, reporter upheld

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         MASSACHUSETTS         Libel         Feb. 10, 2005    

$2 million libel award against The Boston Globe, reporter upheld

  •  A newspaper and one of its former reporters must pay $2 million to a doctor who claimed they libeled her in stories wrongly blaming her for the overdose death of a newspaper columnist, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday.

Feb. 10, 2005 — The Boston Globe and former reporter Richard A. Knox must pay $2 million in damages to a cancer doctor who sued them after reports in 1995 wrongly blamed her for the death of a Globe colleague, health columnist Betsy A. Lehman, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday.

In upholding jury awards of $1.68 million against the newspaper and $420,000 against Knox, the high court ruled that it was libelous to incorrectly identify Dr. Lois J. Ayash as the “leader of the team” that signed an order for a four-fold overdose of an experimental chemotherapy drug for Lehman and one other patient.

The Globe ran a correction saying Ayash did not sign the drug order but did not correct its report that she was chief of the team using the potent experimental cancer therapy. Ayash sued the newspaper and Knox for libel and defamation, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for invasion of privacy and other allegations.

The high court tossed out much of a damage award against the hospital but ruled that Ayash was libeled when the paper singled her out by incorrectly reporting her role in Lehman’s death.

“[U]nlike the claims against Dana-Farber, the Globe defendants . . . were liable on all claims made by the plaintiff and the damages flowing from the wrongdoing,” Justice John M. Greaney wrote in a unanimous opinion.

The Globe asserted that the awards against the paper and its reporter — a combined $2 million — were too high. The high court disagreed.

“Although the damages awarded the plaintiff for the defaulted claims against the Globe defendants may appear high, they were based on evidence that the Globe articles impugning the plaintiff affected her career and caused her a great deal of emotional and psychological anguish,” Greaney wrote.

As the case winded its way through lower courts, Ayash tried several times to compel Knox to reveal the identities of his sources for his articles to help prove that Dana-Farber officials made her a scapegoat. Several judges agreed, including Superior Court Judge Peter M. Lauriat, who ruled in 2001 that Knox should divulge his sources.

The Boston Globe, long a champion of the freedom of information and of unfettered access to public (and even not-so-public) records, has unilaterally and unnecessarily interrupted the free flow of information that may be critical to Ayash,” Lauriat wrote in ordering Knox to reveal his sources.

He never did, which prompted the judge in a 2002 trial to issue a “default judgment” assuming that Ayash’s claims were true until Knox and the paper revealed the sources, the Globe reported. Knox and the paper didn’t and the jury never heard the Globe’s defense.

In Wednesday’s ruling, Greaney said that the judge was correct in ordering Knox to reveal his sources. “The question for our review is whether the judge’s order constituted an abuse of the ‘broad measure of discretion’ afforded him,” Greaney wrote. “We conclude that it did not.”

A Globe spokesman told the paper that it would consider asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision. Knox, now a correspondent at National Public Radio, told the Globe that he hoped it would appeal the decision.

“I’m disappointed that the courts don’t understand that honoring commitments to sources goes to the heart of what journalists do every day,” he said.

(Lois J. Ayash v. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute & others; Media counsel: Jonathan M. Albano, Boston)KM

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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