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Network subject to misrepresentation claim

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         FIRST CIRCUIT         Privacy         Mar 8, 2000    

Network subject to misrepresentation claim

  • A federal appellate court has denied damages to a trucker and his employer against NBC for all claims except misrepresentation for a story the network promised would exclude certain material.

On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) reversed in part a 1997 judgment against “Dateline NBC” brought by trucker Peter Kennedy and his employer. The federal appellate court found “adequate evidence” to support part of Kennedy’s misrepresentation claim, but otherwise reversed the $525,000 judgment.

The dispute arose from the broadcast of two “Dateline NBC” programs entitled “Keep on Truckin’ ” and “On the Road Again,” which focused on the pressures on long-distance truckers, the danger posed by truck-driver fatigue and the disregard for federal truck-driving regulations.

Kennedy and his employer, Ray Veilleux, allowed a “Dateline NBC” crew to accompany Kennedy on a coast-to-coast drive from California to Maine in September and October 1994. After the program aired in April 1995, Kennedy and Veilleux filed suit in federal court against NBC for defamation, misrepresentation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and loss of consortium. They alleged that the program portrayed them in a distorted, untrue manner and argued that their voluntary participation in the program was based on NBC’s false promises that the program would portray truck-driving in a “positive” light.

The federal District Court in Bangor dismissed some of the claims, but allowed others to proceed to trial. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $525,000. NBC appealed.

The appellate court explained that since the “allegedly defamatory statements were reasonably based on Kennedy’s admissions to Dateline or were otherwise supported or protected,” Kennedy and Veilleux failed to prove the statements were “materially false and negligently made as required by Maine law and the First Amendment.” The court also reversed their false light theory of invasion of privacy judgment for the same reason.

The court reversed the part of the misrepresentation award that was based on the assurances that the show would be a positive portrayal of the trucking industry. However, the court remanded to the trial court for consideration the claims for misrepresentation based on NBC’s “more specific promise not to include PATT [Parents Against Tired Truckers] in the program,” explaining that the more specific claim does not offend Maine law or the First Amendment.

Additionally, the court reversed the invasion of privacy judgment that was based on reports of a past drug problem, explaining that since “Kennedy’s drug use was closely related to the theme of highway safety, an issue of public concern featured in the Dateline program, we conclude that the First Amendment protects defendants’ publication.”

(Veilleux v. NBC; Media Counsel: Susan Weiner, New York)


© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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