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$310,000 defamation award reversed

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         SIXTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Feb. 9, 2005    

$310,000 defamation award reversed

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed a defamation verdict because jury instructions were too vague.

Feb. 9, 2005 — A $310,000 defamation verdict against WDEF television in Chattanooga, Tenn., was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) last week because jury instructions were too vague. The court found that at least one of the allegedly defamatory statements did not satisfy the actual malice standard for proving defamation against a public figure, and that the jury instructions made it impossible to tell which of the allegedly defamatory statements the verdict was based upon.

Charmaine West, owner of First Alternative Probation and Counseling, Inc., sued WDEF for defamation and invasion of privacy over a 1999 four-part report titled “Probation for Sale.” The report alleged that First Alternative, a private for-profit company that provided court-ordered probation and rehabilitation services for Chattanooga misdemeanor violators, was improperly profiting from a “pretty cozy relationship” between West and sentencing judges.

West filed the suit in Tennessee state court against WDEF’s owner, Media General Inc., which had the case removed to federal court.

The trial court found that West and First Alternative were public figures for purposes of the suit, and that they would have to prove actual malice — that WDEF knew or recklessly disregarded that the reports were false — in order to recover damages. Although the court identified 14 allegedly defamatory statements or subjects from the plaintiff’s complaint, it submitted the case on a general verdict form that did not require the jury to identify which of the statements or subjects it found defamatory.

The jury sided with the plaintiffs and awarded $190,000 to West and $120,000 to First Alternative. WDEF appealed and the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed in an unpublished decision.

“Simply put, we cannot tell which statements the jury found to be . . . false, defamatory, and made with actual malice,” Judge Karen K. Caldwell wrote for the court. “Moreover, the possibility exists that the jury may have based their verdict on a statement that Plaintiffs never even alleged was false or defamatory, by perceiving from the combination of audio and video clips in the broadcast a false statement on which Plaintiffs never presented evidence.”

The court held that because the plaintiffs failed to establish actual malice for at least one of the statements, the case must be sent back to a jury because it is possible that liability was based entirely on that statement.

WDEF also argued that it was improper to allow the jury to consider allegedly defamatory subjects instead of only specific allegedly defamatory statements from the broadcasts. The court rejected the argument, finding that “a television news report can imply a defamatory statement about the subject of the report through a combination of audio statements and visual effects,” that a printed transcript might not convey.

(West v. Media General Operations, Media Counsel: Samuel L. Felker, Bass, Berry & Sims, Nashville, Tenn.)GP

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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