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Jury awards $18 million in false light lawsuit

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Libel    

Jury awards $18 million in false light lawsuit

  • A Florida jury decided that a Pensacola News Journal article portrayed a road paver in a false light when it mentioned that he “shot and killed” his wife.

Dec. 16, 2003 — A jury in Pensacola, Fla., awarded a road paver $18.28 million last Friday for a “false light” invasion of privacy claim against the Pensacola News Journal.

Joe Anderson Jr. sued the newspaper and its parent company, Gannet Co., following a 1998 article about Anderson’s road paving company. The story described the political influence wielded by Anderson Columbia Co., and noted that Anderson had “shot and killed” his wife in 1988. Two sentences later, the author explained that law enforcement authorities determined the shooting to be a hunting accident.

Anderson admitted the article was factually correct, but alleged it placed him in a false light by implying that he murdered his wife. Anderson contended that the article’s implication led the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to deny him a permit to build a cement plant.

David Struhs, secretary of the state DEP, testified at trial that the permit was denied because of the company’s poor environmental record. The permit was later approved, he said, according to a Dec. 13 article in The Miami Herald.

Reporter Amie Streater, who wrote the article and now works for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, testified that she included the shooting in her story because Anderson received two more years of probation — after pleading guilty to bribery in 1986 — for possession of the firearm, in violation of his probation.

The jury’s award was for compensatory damages only. Judge T. Michael Jones, of the Circuit Court in Pensacola, declared a mistrial regarding punitive damages because the jury was unable to come to a decision. According to a Dec. 13 article in the Pensacola News Journal, Anderson’s attorney, Willie Gray, said he plans to ask for $2.5 billion in punitive damages at a new trial.

Robert Kerrigan, an attorney for the newspaper, called the verdict “absurd.”

“The case should never have gone to a jury,” Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan says Anderson should have had to prove falsity, and that the trial judge was “confused and did not understand the issues.” Moreover, he says, Anderson offered no proof to connect the article to the damages he suffered.

The newspaper has not announced its next step, which could involve asking the judge to overturn the verdict or seeking appellate review.

(Anderson Columbia Co. Inc. v. Pensacola News-Journal Inc.; Media Counsel: Robert Bernius, Nixon Peabody LLP, Washington, D.C.) KM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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