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Court rejects journalism professor’s expert testimony on damages

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  1. Libel and Privacy
MONTANA--In mid-July the state Supreme Court in Helena affirmed the decision of a trial court in Great Falls that excluded…

MONTANA–In mid-July the state Supreme Court in Helena affirmed the decision of a trial court in Great Falls that excluded “scientific” testimony from a libel trial. The trial court refused to admit testimony from a journalism professor who claimed to have a scientific method for determining a story’s impact on its subject’s reputation.

The high court unanimously held that District Court Judge Peter Rapkoch did not abuse his discretion by excluding testimony from University of Texas journalism professor Maxwell McCombs from the trial of a libel suit filed by Montana attorney Sidney Kurth against the Great Falls Tribune.

Kurth sought to introduce a deposition from McCombs in which the professor discussed the results of a “content” and “agenda setting” analysis he performed on various Tribune stories. McCombs claimed to have scientifically determined that, because of the context in which it appeared, the erroneous story had a greater impact upon the attorney’s reputation than it might otherwise have had. Kurth wanted to introduce the professor’s deposition as evidence of the extent to which his reputation had been damaged.

The court held that, because McCombs’ analysis lacked a scientific basis, his deposition was admissible only for use by another of Kurth’s expert witnesses and would not be directly admitted into evidence.

Judge Rapkoch also found that the report was “not helpful” in resolving the dispute. The judge noted that he himself had direct knowledge of the community and the Tribune’s readership, while McCombs’ lack of knowledge about Montana and his reliance on map-based demographics rendered his testimony too weak to be of value to the court.

“We’re not dealing with chemistry or things like that,” Rapkoch wrote, “we’re dealing with language. And language, gentlemen, is our stock and trade.”

The high court also affirmed the lower court’s decision to limit damages in the case to $2,000. It specified that its opinion in this case could not be relied upon as precedent for deciding other cases in the future. (Kurth v. Great Falls Tribune Co.; Media Counsel: Peter Meloy, Helena)