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High court throws out case against ABC

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    NMU         MINNESOTA         Libel    

High court throws out case against ABC

  • Another defendant, an attorney who was interviewed for ABC’s Prime Time Live program, must continue to defend the libel suit.

Aug. 25, 2003 — The Minnesota Supreme Court Aug. 14 affirmed the dismissal of a libel case brought by hotel owner Gus Chafoulias against ABC over a news report on sexual harassment at a Radisson hotel in Rochester, Minn. The court held that the businessman was a “limited purpose” public figure with respect to ABC at the time of the report and could not overcome the heightened standard of proof against the network.

The court refused to dismiss claims against another defendant in the case, attorney Lori Peterson, who was interviewed for the 1997 Prime Time Live episode at issue. Peterson, who represented former female employees at the Radisson, said on the show that Chafoulias knew that his employees were being attacked, harassed and raped by male guests at the hotel.

The court’s opinion centered on the definition of a “limited purpose” figure. The definition is significant because a plaintiff who is deemed to be a public figure in a libel lawsuit must prove that the defendant who published the alleged falsehoods acted with “actual malice.” “Actual malice” — defined as knowledge of or reckless disregard for the falsity of a statement — is difficult to prove.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that had heard the case and which found that Chafoulias was a “limited purpose” public figure with respect to ABC. Chafoulias, a prominent businessman, had thrust himself into a public controversy and had used the media to promote his position in the dispute, the court said. Because Chafoulias failed to show that ABC knew of the probably falsity of Peterson’s interview statements, his claims against ABC were dismissed.

The public figure analysis differed with regards to Peterson, the court said, because Peterson might have been the original source of the public controversy. The facts relating to Chafoulias’s claim against Peterson remained unresolved, and therefore the court sent that claim back to the trial court for further litigation.

(Chafoulias v. Peterson; Media counsel: Thomas Tinkham, Dorsey & Whitney, Minneapolis) WT

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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