Restaurateur awarded millions in libel damages in mistaken identity suit
NEW YORK — In early November a restaurant owner was awarded $11.5 million in damages in the re-trial of a libel case he brought against Capital Cities/ABC in 1982 after a television news report identified him as the victim of a mob beating.
In May 1982 WKBW-TV, a Buffalo television station owned at the time by Capital Cities Communications, falsely reported that restaurant owner John Prozeralik was the victim of an abduction and beating by organized crime figures. The actual victim was later identified in a broadcast by a rival television station.
The misidentification arose when station reporters tried to identify the victim, who was rumored to be a Niagara Falls restaurant owner. The television station’s assignment manager said that the first person who came to mind was Prozeralik, owner of John’s Flaming Heart Restaurant. Then-WKBW anchor Cindy DiBiasi said that when she called FBI agent John Thurston and mentioned Prozeralik’s name, the agent said, “You can go with that unless I call you back.” According to DiBiasi, Thurston did not call back and she went ahead with the report.
Thurston denied making that statement, and claimed that he only told DiBiasi that he would call her back if anything came up.
At the original trial in May 1992, Prozeralik was awarded $15.5 million in damages. Capital Cities appealed the verdict to the Court of Appeals in Albany, the state’s highest court, which overturned the verdict. The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury to accept Agent Thurston’s version of his conversation with DiBiasi.
In the re-trial, the State Supreme Court jury awarded Prozeralik $6 million for damage to reputation, $3.5 million for emotional stress and $1.5 million for financial losses, according to the New York Times. The jury also awarded Prozeralik $500,000 in punitive damages.
(Prozeralik v. Capital Cities/ABC; Media Counsel: Floyd Abrams, New York City)