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State supreme court reinstates $2.97 million libel verdict

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   KENTUCKY   ·   Libel   ·   Aug. 26, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   KENTUCKY   ·   Libel   ·   Aug. 26, 2005

State supreme court reinstates $2.97 million libel verdict

  • A jury verdict issued against a television station in a libel trial was reinstated by the Supreme Court of Kentucky because the evidence in the case was sufficient for a jury to find actual malice.

Aug. 26, 2005  ·   The Supreme Court of Kentucky reinstated a nearly $3 million libel verdict Thursday against a television station over its reporting on a roller coaster collision that injured five people. The court ruled that the evidence presented in the case was sufficient for the jury to find that the television station acted with actual malice — knowledge that published statements were false or reckless disregard for whether they were true or not.

“This case is full of evidence from which the jury could conclude that WHAS-TV acted with actual malice,” Justice Donald C. Wintersheimer wrote for the 4-3 majority.

On July 26, 1994, five riders were injured when two cars collided on the “Starchaser” indoor roller coaster at the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park in Louisville. Although a safety mechanism on the ride had been disabled, an investigation by Kentucky Kingdom attributed the accident to operator error. WHAS-TV Channel 11 in Louisville broadcast several reports on the accident between 1994 and 1996.

Kentucky Kingdom sued WHAS in state court, alleging that three statements from the broadcasts were libelous: that State inspectors thought the ride was “too dangerous,” that the ride “malfunctioned,” and that a “key component” of the ride had been removed.

A jury found in favor of Kentucky Kingdom in 1998, and awarded the amusement park $3.97 million in damages. The trial judge reduced the award by $1 million. Both parties appealed, and the state court of appeals reversed the verdict and ordered a new trial.

On appeal, the state supreme court reversed and reinstated the ruling of the trial judge.

Wintersheimer described the evidence supporting a jury finding of actual malice, including “that there was a failure to correct any inaccuracies; that there was a continuing commitment to running and rerunning the same story line; that there was a significant failure to investigate or verify credibility; and the general makeup and presentation of the story exhibited hostility. A reasonable trier of fact could determine that there was defamation.”

In dissent, Justice William S. Cooper wrote that “upon examination of the broadcasts in full context, it is impossible to conclude that the broadcasts were made with actual malice, because they were substantially true.”

(Kentucky Kingdom Amusement Co. v. WHAS-TV, Media Counsel: Russ Coleman)GP

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