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Judge reverses jury verdict in libel case

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Libel    

Judge reverses jury verdict in libel case

  • A district court judge overturned a $110,000 verdict against a broadcaster, saying the alleged defamation was not made with actual malice.

Oct. 22, 2003 — A district court judge in Minneapolis overturned a $110,000 jury verdict for libel, holding that the plaintiff did not prove television station KARE in Minneapolis acted with “actual malice.”

Actual malice, the standard used in defamation cases where the plaintiff is a public figure, requires proof that the statements were made with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Judge Gary Larson of Hennepin County District Court found on Oct. 16 that KARE-TV did not act with actual malice, and that the jury was not properly instructed concerning the actual malice standard.

The case began in May 1999 after St. Cloud Police Officer Thomas Schlieman shot and killed Kevin Hartwig, who charged at police with a knife. In covering the story, KARE-TV reporter Dennis Stauffer interviewed two of Hartwig’s neighbors. One stated, “We were so surprised by the incident because Kevin had never been aggressive.”

The neighbor later explained in testimony at trial that she meant Hartwig had never seemed aggressive by nature. She didn’t mean at the time of the shooting.

Stauffer also interviewed the St. Cloud police chief, but was denied access to witness statements and Officer Schlieman.

KARE-TV broadcast a report about the shooting in which Stauffer reported that “two people say they witnessed the shooting and that Hartwig was not being aggressive.”

Schlieman sued the station for libel, and a jury found that the broadcast was not defamatory. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that verdict, but held that the only possible defamatory statement in the broadcast was that Hartwig was “not being aggressive.”

The case was retried before Judge Larson, and a jury found the statement to be defamatory and made with actual malice. In his order overturning the jury’s verdict, Larson wrote that Shlieman presented no evidence that KARE-TV or Stauffer knew or believed that the statement was false. Stauffer simply reported what he knew at the time of the broadcast, Larson concluded.

Furthermore, “failure to investigate or corroborate information does not establish actual malice,” Larson stated, noting that Stauffer tried to verify his statement without success and broadcast conflicting information he received from police.

“We feel vindicated,” said John Remes, president and general manager of KARE-TV, in an Oct. 22 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We take our journalistic role very seriously and the station and our company never wavered in our belief that we had reported the facts of the story fairly.”

(Schlieman v. KARE-TV; Media Counsel: Paul Klaas, Dorsey & Whitney LLP, Minneapolis) KM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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