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Appellate court reinstates anthrax libel lawsuit

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FOURTH CIRCUIT   ·   Libel   ·   July 29, 2005

Appellate court reinstates anthrax libel lawsuit

  • A former Army biodefense scientist can move forward with a libel lawsuit against The New York Times over columns questioning his involvement in the 2001 anthrax attacks, a federal appellate panel in Richmond ruled Thursday.

July 29, 2005  ·   The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) reinstated former Army biodefense scientist Dr. Steven J. Hatfill’s libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuit against The New York Times and columnist Nicholas Kristof, ruling that Hatfill’s allegations are sufficient to allow the case to proceed.

In reversing a lower court’s dismissal of the case, a three-judge panel of the court ruled 2-1 that under federal rules of court, dismissal is improper “unless it appears beyond doubt that [Hatfill] can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.”

Kristof wrote a series of columns questioning the adequacy of the FBI’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 17. Kristof specifically criticized the FBI’s failure to focus on Hatfill, who was later named a “person of interest” in the investigation but never charged.

Hatfill sued, but U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton dismissed the case in November because the columns were “not reasonably read as accusing Hatfill of actually being the anthrax mailer.”

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Dennis W. Shedd, joined by Chief Judge William W. Wilkins, disagreed, ruling that at this stage of the litigation, the plaintiff’s allegations must be assumed true, and therefore “Hatfill’s complaint adequately alleges that Kristof’s columns, taken together, are capable of defamatory meaning.”

The court also held that Hatfill sufficiently alleged that he suffered severe emotional distress and that the columns were sufficiently extreme or outrageous to support the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

Judge Paul V. Niemeyer dissented. “The essential question therefore is whether these columns, taken together or individually, may fairly be read to accuse Dr. Hatfill of the murders,” he wrote. “Because I can find nothing in the letter or spirit of the columns that amounts to such an accusation, I would affirm” the lower court’s dismissal.

Attorney David A. Schulz, who is representing the Times, said the court’s ruling is narrow and any possible trial is still a long way off. A decision has not yet been made whether to ask for rehearing by the full Court of Appeals.

(Hatfill v. The New York Times Co., Media Counsel: David A. Schulz, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, New York)GP

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