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High court denies review of heightened proof rule in libel cases

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Libel         Nov 16, 1999    

High court denies review of heightened proof rule in libel cases

  • The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling that not only public figures, but all individuals who bring libel suits, must prove “actual malice” to recover damages when matters of public concern are at issue will stand.

In mid-November, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal from an Indiana Supreme Court decision that affirmed an intermediate appellate court’s reversal of a $985,000 libel award in favor of a restaurant that sued an Indiana newspaper for printing inaccurate information in a headline.

The Indiana Supreme Court’s June 1999 decision marked the first time the state high court in Indianapolis had spoken on the issue of what standard of liability would govern state libel claims since the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1974 that states could set their own standards of liability for private individuals suing for libel. The Indiana Supreme Court established that all individuals, not just public figures, must meet a heightened standard of proof to recover for libel when matters of public concern are at issue.

According to the state’s highest court, such individuals must prove with clear and convincing evidence that the statements were made with “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette published an article concerning the health inspection and closing of a local Mexican restaurant, Bandido’s. In September 1988, a health inspector had noted several violations at Bandido’s and had documented evidence of flies, roaches, and rodents in his report. The Board of Health later revoked the restaurant’s health permit and closed its doors. The Journal-Gazette covered the closing of the local restaurant in a story published in early October 1988.

Although the story was accurate, the subheadline written by a copy editor inaccurately reported that the inspector actually found rats, when neither the health inspector nor the Board of Health ever found rats, rather than evidence of the presence of rats, at Bandido’s. The day after the original story was published, the newspaper ran another story in which it noted the mistake and apologized. Despite the apology, the owner of Bandido’s filed suit in the Noble Circuit Court in November 1988.

At the conclusion of the trial, a jury awarded Bandido’s $985,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. But in 1996, the Indiana Court of Appeals in Indianapolis reversed the trial court’s decision because it found that Bandido’s had not proven actual malice with clear and convincing evidence. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the intermediate court’s ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling on Nov. 15.

(Bandido’s v. Journal-Gazette Co.; Media Counsel: Cathleen Shrader and James Fenton, Fort Wayne)

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© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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