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Libel award over 'Sludge Train' story overturned

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Libel award over 'Sludge Train' story overturned 06/16/97 TEXAS--The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, La., (5th Cir.) overturned…

Libel award over ‘Sludge Train’ story overturned

06/16/97

TEXAS–The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, La., (5th Cir.) overturned a libel award of $5 million in early June against “TV Nation” for its report, “Sludge Train,” which followed a shipment of sludge from New York to its final disposal site in a small Texas town. The report, which was taped in June 1994, aired the following August.

The disposal company, Merco Joint Venture, failed to prove that any part of the broadcast was false, according to the appellate court. In addition, it could not show the allegations were made with actual malice, which is required for punitive damages, the Court of Appeals ruled.

The appellate court overturned a jury award of nominal libel damages of $2 and punitive damages of $500,000 against Hugh Kaufman, an Environmental Protection Agency expert in sludge disposal who had worked at the agency for 25 years, and $4.5 million against TriStar Television, Inc., producers of the show.

Because Kaufman sincerely believed that “land application of sludge is dangerous and will eventually be proved harmful,” those statements fall short of the knowledge or recklessness required to establish actual malice, the court concluded.

As “a public figure engaged in a controversial business,” Merco should expect others to disagree with its practices, the court said. (Scalamandre & Sons, Inc., v. Kaufman; Media Counsel: David Gunn, Belair)