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$3.25 million libel award over faked death scheme reversed

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  1. Libel and Privacy
$3.25 million libel award over faked death scheme reversed 01/11/99 TEXAS--An appellate court in Houston in late December erased a…

$3.25 million libel award over faked death scheme reversed

01/11/99

TEXAS–An appellate court in Houston in late December erased a failed mayoral candidate’s $3.25 million libel judgment awarded in a case he brought against KTRK Television after it aired a 1991 story linking the candidate to a client’s phony death and insurance fraud scheme.

The three-judge panel reversed the award for candidate Sylvester Turner, which had already been reduced by the trial judge from a $5.55 million jury award in 1996, due to lack of evidence of falsity or actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — required to support the award.

At the time the suit was brought, Turner was a sitting state representative and candidate for mayor of Houston and was undisputedly a public official who had to establish actual malice to succeed in bringing a defamation claim.

The appellate panel found the station’s report on the facts concerning the client’s scheme was substantially true. The panel also held that on-air statements about the “interesting” timing regarding the signing of the client’s will only three days before his disappearance and alleged death were opinions protected under the First Amendment.

Reporter Wayne Dolcefino believed his aired story was true and had not acted with reckless disregard for the truth because he had spent four days interviewing 30 people and reviewing 500 pages of probate court records in preparing the story, the court found. In addition, the station was under no obligation to present a “balanced view,” and thus, the omission of information favorable to Turner could not be evidence of actual malice, according to the court.

The allegations that Turner asserted were defamatory and untrue concerned his drafting of a will for a client, who apparently faked his death three days after signing the will. Turner drafted the will, delivered the eulogy at the client’s funeral, and represented the estate in probate proceedings until suspicions that the death had been faked arose.

Turner’s client, who allegedly carried more than $6 million in life insurance, was reported by friends to have fallen off a sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico, but a Coast Guard search never turned up a body, and it was later discovered that the client was alive and serving time in a Spanish prison on drug charges.

Dolcefino’s story, which Turner said implied he knew about his client’s faked death and insurance scams, aired days before a scheduled election in which Turner and opponent Bob Lanier were pitted against each other in a tight runoff race. Turner lost the election and subsequently sued KTRK and Dolcefino.

KTRK staff testified that they appreciated the importance of the timing of their coverage of the story, but Dolcefino — along with the station’s new director, producer, and general manager — also testified that he believed the story aired was true and had no doubts about the accuracy of any of the information reported. (Dolcefino v. Turner; Media Counsel: Charles L. Babcock, Houston)