New York high court reverses $15.5 million libel verdict against broadcaster
NEW YORK — New York’s highest court reversed a $15.5 million judgment in late November won by a Niagara Falls restaurant owner in his defamation suit against Capital Cities Communications, Inc. The judgment included $10 million in punitive damages.
The plaintiff, John Prozeralik, said he was defamed by a Capital Cities television station and radio station when they incorrectly reported that he was the victim of a mob-related beating. Prozeralik said he was further defamed by a retraction reporting that the FBI had earlier “said and confirmed” that Prozeralik was the victim.
The New York Court of Appeals ordered a new trial because the trial court judge had instructed the jury that the retraction was false as a matter of law. At the trial, a news anchor and an FBI agent offered conflicting accounts about what the FBI agent had said when the anchor asked if the victim was Prozeralik. The Court of Appeals said the judge should have permitted the jury to decide whom to believe.
The Court of Appeals refused to dismiss the case outright, however. The court found that Prozeralik had introduced sufficient evidence for the jury to find that when the broadcasters reported that Prozeralik was the victim, they “acted with a high degree of awareness of ‘probable falsity’ or entertained ‘serious doubts’ as to the truth of the broadcasts.”
The Court of Appeals also held that if Prozeralik convinces the next jury that he was defamed, to win punitive damages he would have to further prove that the broadcasters made their report out of hatred, ill will, spite, or a criminal mental state. The court said that the record thus far does not support that conclusion.
(Prozeralik v. Capital Cities Communications, Inc.; Media Counsel: Floyd Abrams, New York)