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$3 million verdict over station's story on roller coaster reversed

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         KENTUCKY         Libel         Sep 25, 2000    

$3 million verdict over station’s story on roller coaster reversed

  • An amusement park showed that a reporter acted with actual malice for only one of three claimed defamatory statements about the safety of a roller coaster.

A $3 million libel verdict won by a Louisville amusement park was improperly awarded because a television station did not act with actual malice when it aired two comments by a reporter on the safety of a roller coaster at the park, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled on Sept. 8.

The court upheld the defamatory verdict of a third comment the reporter made, but reversed the entire award because the jury did not specify how much of the award was for each statement.

In 1994, two cars on “Starchaser,” an indoor roller coaster at Kentucky Kingdom, collided, injuring several passengers. The parents of one victim, a seven-year-old, sued the park. WHAS reported on the lawsuit and other allegations against the park’s safety. Kentucky Kingdom sued the station for defamation, citing three statements in a series of investigative reports on the amusement park and the ride.

In one comment, a rider who saw the collision told a reporter from the television station, “everybody should know … how dangerous this ride is.” The reporter then said that “state inspectors also think the ride is ‘too dangerous.'” The station aired the reporter’s comments, even after two state officials called the ride basically safe.

The station also reported the roller coaster ride “malfunctioned,” although there was a dispute about whether the ride actually had malfunctioned. One state inspector testified he did not think the ride had malfunctioned, although he was unable to duplicate the accident.

Finally, the station also reported Kentucky Kingdom had “removed a key component of the Starchaser.” Based on a conversation with an employee of another roller coaster manufacturing company, the reporter mistakenly understood that the brake was necessary to the safety of the Starchaser ride.

The jury returned a $4 million verdict for the park, but the trial judge reduced the amount by $1 million.

In a libel action when the plaintiff is a public figure, the plaintiff must prove clearly and convincingly that the defendant acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. On appeal, the court decided Kentucky Kingdom met the definition of a public figure and held the park proved actual malice only for the ” too dangerous” statement because the reporter made the statement despite what he learned from the two state officials.

Without a specified amount of damages for each statement, the court did not allocate damages for the single malicious statement. The court remanded the surviving statement with specific guidelines to the trial court to revise the jury instructions, but the parties may appeal the ruling to the Kentucky Supreme Court first.

(Belo Kentucky, Inc. v. Kentucky Kingdom Amusement Co.; Media Counsel: John L. Tate, Stites & Harbison, Louisville) DB

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