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Dismissal of libel suit against ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” upheld

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         SEVENTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Oct 31, 2000    

Dismissal of libel suit against ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” upheld

  • A federal appeals court upheld a ruling of summary judgment for the network in a seven-year-old libel lawsuit.

A libel lawsuit brought by an eye clinic against ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” and reporter Sam Donaldson was dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) on Oct. 27. The court ruled the Desnick Eye Centers did not prove the network acted with actual malice by reporting that the clinic tampered with a vision machine, resulting in false diagnoses of cataracts.

Because the appeals court deemed the eye clinic a “public figure,” it held the plaintiff had to prove that the news magazine program acted with actual knowledge that the program’s content was false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. The court held there was insufficient evidence for a jury to believe that the program and its reporters had serious doubts that the content was false.

“PrimeTime Live” broadcast a segment in June 1993 that reported the Desnick eye clinic in the Midwest performed unnecessary cataract surgeries. The episode included testimony from a former employee, Paddy Kalish, who showed how a cataract-detecting machine could be modified to give false positives. The former employee alleged that the Desnick machine was tampered with in the same way.

ABC broadcast the allegation and a demonstration of the machine using Donaldson’s vision. The network supported the allegation with evidence of unnecessary surgeries, alterations of patient records and statements from other former employees that nearly all Desnick patients failed the test.

The plaintiffs argued that ABC knew other facts which would have cast doubt on Kalish’s accusation. One such fact was the clinic’s successful defamation suit against Kalish. However, as the court pointed out, summary judgment in the defamation case was entered against Kalish only after Kalish’s attorney failed to make a timely filing. The appeals court said that the state suit “should have set off warning bells at ABC,” but that ABC would not have learned that Kalish’s allegations were false from the state court record.

(Desnick v. ABC; Media Counsel: Michael M. Conway, Hopkins & Sutter, Chicago) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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