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Juries in two states award six-figure sums in libel cases

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Juries in two states award six-figure sums in libel cases

  • Public officials in Massachusetts and Minnesota win more than $1.5 million combined in two libel cases.

Jan. 7, 2005 — Two recent but unrelated large jury awards for libel were handed down against newspapers in Massachusetts and Minnesota, raising the fear that smaller newspapers may be intimidated into avoiding reporting on matters of public importance. A federal jury in Boston awarded a former Maryland prosecutor $950,000 over a newspaper’s reporting allegations of child abuse, and a Chaska, Minn., jury awarded a county commissioner $625,000 for an editorial containing incorrect facts. Both cases are being appealed.

In January 2003, The Boston Phoenix published an article titled “Children at Risk” by Kristen Lombardi on problems in the family court system. The article included allegations that then-Baltimore County, Md., prosecutor Marc Mandel, who was involved in a bitter divorce and custody dispute, had sexually abused his children. Mandel sued for libel in April in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Judge Edward F. Harrington ruled that Mandel was not a public official for purposes of the lawsuit, and therefore did not need to prove actual malice — that the paper knew or had reason to believe the statements were false, the burden normally required for public officials to overcome when they sue for libel.

A jury found the newspaper liable and awarded Mandel $950,000 last month.

The paper has asked Harrington to nullify the award or grant a new trial, arguing that the award is too large, that the statements in the article were not libelous as a matter of law, and that Mandel is indeed a public official. Phoenix attorney Daniel J. Gleason argued in court documents that although Mandel was ruled not a public official before the trial because he held an ordinary non-public job, at trial Mandel relied on the highly public nature of his position to show how he had been damaged by the article.

In the Minnesota case, Carver County, Minn. commissioner and former legislator Tom Workman sued the Chanhassen Villager for libel in state court. Workman claimed that a January 2003 Villager editorial titled “The Right Foot?” included factual errors and falsely implied that he plotted against a former county administrator over a grudge. A jury agreed and awarded Workman $625,000 in damages last month.

“This would probably bankrupt two-thirds of the newspapers in Minnesota,” Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune , saying it was “hard to exaggerate” the intimidating effect.

(Mandel v. The Boston Phoenix, Inc., Media Counsel: Daniel J. Gleason, Nutter, McClennen & Fish, Boston; Workman v. Serrano, et al, Media Counsel: Paul Hannah, St. Paul) GP

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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