Iowa state senator wins $231,000 in defamation suit over campaign ad

Haley Behre | Libel | News | April 11, 2012

An Iowa jury awarded a state senator $231,000 in a defamation suit last week, finding that his opponent and the local Democratic Party defamed him in a TV ad that ran during the 2010 senate race.

State Sen. Rick Bertrand, a Republican, filed the suit with the Woodbury County District Court within 48 hours after the campaign ad aired claiming that Bertrand “put profit over children’s health,” according to the senator. The ad was paid for by the Iowa Democratic Party and approved by his opponent Rick Mullin, who would eventually lose the election to Bertrand.

The ad claimed Bertrand was a “salesman for the most unethical company in the world” and that the company sold a dangerous sleeping drug for children. The ad concluded by stating, “Rick Bertrand — broken promises, record of deceit.”

Bertrand asked for an emergency injunction and damages because it “tied him to a drug [he] did not carry in a division of the company [he] never worked for,” he said. Bertrand worked for the pharmaceutical company Takeda North America as a regional manager until 2009. Bertrand said he informed the defendants and media organizations that the ad contained lies; however, the defendants refused to stop the campaign ad and continued to run similar ads.

"We strongly believe that we conducted a fact-based campaign against Senator Bertrand in 2010 and therefore respectfully disagree with Friday’s verdict," said Mike Hunt, communcations director of the Iowa Democratic Party.

The party plans to appeal the verdict, according to Hunt.

The jury awarded Bertrand $31,000 from Mullins and $200,000 from the Iowa Democratic Party, according to the judgment issued by the court. Bertrand is appealling the case to the Iowa Supreme Court, seeking punitive damages, which the judge denied him in the trial court.

Bertrand said this case could have national implications and he hopes that the jury's decision lays the ground work for how political ads are seen.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It is a both party issue. It is about establishing truth and setting up precedent," Bertrand said.

Jeana Louise Goosmann, Bertrand's attorney, said the jury made it clear that "political lies have financial consequences.

"The law does not allow limitless protection for false statements made with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth," she said. As a result, political candidates should begin to think twice about creating ads that contain lies, Goosmann added.

Because Bertrand is a public figure, he had to prove that the defamatory information was aired with "actual malice" -- meaning the defendant knew that the challenged statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Bertrand was able to prove actual malice by showing, through various documents and testimony, that the defendants knew he never sold the drug in question and that he never owned a pharmaceutical company, Goosmann said.

Bertrand had emailed and informed Mullin in person that the ad contained false information, she said. Goosman added that after Bertrand filed a lawsuit on Oct. 22, 2010, the defendants continued to run the ad and aired similar ones six days later.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Introduction -- Defamatory communication -- Publication -- Falsity

· The First Amendment Handbook: Identification -- Harm -- Fault (public officials vs. private figures)