Dallas restaurateur’s libel case dismissed
- An appeals court said the steakhouse owner, a public figure for libel purposes, failed to show that Dallas Observer reporters acted with actual malice.
June 20, 2003 — Texas’s 5th District Court of Appeals June 13 dismissed a libel case brought against the Dallas Observer and one of its reporters by restaurateur Dale Wamstad.
The case arose out of an article written by reporter Mark Stuertz in the March 16-22, 2000 edition of the Observer. The article was titled “Family Man: Dallas restaurateur Dale Wamstad portrays himself as a humble entrepreneur and devoted father. The family he abandoned in New Orleans had a bone to pick with that.”
Wamstad said the article, which detailed his relationships with his ex-wife, their son, and some of Wamstad’s business associates, harmed his reputation. The article recounted stories of Wamstad’s physical and emotional abuse of family members and his numerous disputes with business partners.
Although the article was largely unfavorable, it included Wamstad’s denial of the accusations against him and also included favorable statements made by his current father-in-law.
The appeals court said Wamstad was a public figure, for purposes of a libel suit, and therefore would have to prove that employees of the Observer acted with “actual malice” in publishing the article about him.
Wamstad attained public figure status through years of press coverage, the Texas court said. Incidents involving Wamstad’s personal and professional life had been covered by the media since 1986. On several occasions, Wamstad himself had sought media attention for his businesses and “invited public rebuttal concerning his persona,” the court said.
“Accordingly, this is not a case where the defamation plaintiff was thrust into the public eye and involuntarily remained there,” the court said. “Through his promotion of his family man image in his advertising over the years, Wamstad voluntarily sought public attention, at the very least for the purpose of influencing the consuming public. The continuing press coverage over the years showed that the public was indeed interested.”
Wamstad was unable to rebut the Observer‘s evidence that the article had been extensively researched. In preparing the piece, Stuertz had interviewed at least 19 people, reviewed more than 57 court documents, read close to 50 newspaper articles about Wamstad, discussed his sources with his editor, and corroborated most, if not all, of the statements about Wamstad, according to court papers.
The court said the newspaper had provided “ample evidence of a plausible basis for the Observer’s employees to believe in the truth” of the statements in the article.
Because Wamstad failed to produce evidence to controvert this evidence and show the existence of “actual malice,” his case must be dismissed, the court said.
The court’s decision reversed a trial court ruling that would have allowed the case to proceed to trial.
(New Times, Inc. v. Wamstad; Media counsel: Charles L. Babcock, Jackson Walker LLP, Houston, Tex.) — WT
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press