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Appeals court reinstates libel lawsuit against newspaper

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Appeals court reinstates libel lawsuit against newspaper

  • The Ohio Court of Appeals reversed a lower court dismissal of a lawsuit against the Akron Beacon Journal because the article in question was defamatory per se.

Feb. 25, 2004 — The Ohio Court of Appeals in Youngstown last week overturned a lower court dismissal of a defamation lawsuit against the Akron Beacon Journal, finding that statements that insinuated that a businessman regularly lied were defamatory on their face.

The case was brought three years ago by Robert Murray, owner of The Ohio Valley Coal Co., who claims he was defamed by a January 2001 article in the Beacon Journal.

The case was dismissed in August 2002 by the Belmont County Common Pleas Court, which found that the plaintiff was a limited purpose public figure, and that he failed to prove the newspaper acted with actual malice. Murray further failed to prove damages, the pleas court held.

The appellate court disagreed. Judge Joseph Vukovich, writing for the three-judge panel Feb. 18, found that four statements in the article were defamatory per se — the defamatory meanings of the statements are apparent on their face and do not need to be proved, and the plaintiff does not need to show damages suffered, such as loss of business revenues.

One of the four statements is a quote from Murray. “The only thing I want is a long line at my funeral,” he said. “I’m sick. I bought my cemetery plot.”

Two other statements involve reporter Margaret Newkirk’s assessment of Murray’s personality: “Even his friends roll their eyes at his hyperbole”and “If the Boich brothers were the quiet of coal in the 1990s, ‘Honest Bob’ Murray — as his friends jokingly called him — was the loud one,”she wrote.

The fourth statement is a paraphrased a quote from a former coal lobbyist. “He tends to exaggerate a good bit.”

The court found that the statement about dying which was attributed to Murray harmed him because “other parties will be deterred from dealing with him for fear that he will die.” The other statements indicate that Murray is a dishonest person, the court concluded.

Vukovich added that “a question of fact remains as to whether the statements are substantially true and were stated with actual malice.”

The decision is “very disappointing and surprising,” said Karen Lefton, the Beacon Journal‘s attorney. “We feel that this was an accurate view of Mr. Murray and we don’t feel that it was defamatory.”

Lefton said the newspaper plans to appeal.

(Murray v. Knight-Ridder, Inc.; Media Counsel: Ronald Kopp, Roetzel & Andress LLP, Akron) KM

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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