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Television station loses appeal over verdict for defaming veterinarian

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         OKLAHOMA         Libel         Sep 13, 2002    

Television station loses appeal over verdict for defaming veterinarian

  • An Oklahoma appellate court declined to change a jury’s defamation finding but questioned the $6.5 million verdict awarded in the case.

The Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City denied a television station’s appeal Sept. 6 in a dispute over a series of news reports about a veterinarian.

KWTV, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, was hit with a $6.5 million libel verdict last summer after a local veterinarian sued the station over reports about the his role in two scandals in the horse racing industry.

The television station filed an appeal in May, claiming the verdict was based on a misapplication of Oklahoma’s libel law. KWTV attorneys asserted that the veterinarian never proved that the station was negligent in airing the stories. The appeals court, in its decision last week, declined to relieve the station of liability for defamation but left open the possibility for a reduction in the $6.5 million damages award.

KWTV did a news series in 1998 about an Oklahoman veterinarian, Dr. H.L. Mitchell, who inspected horses at races in both Oklahoma and New Mexico. The stories focused on allegations that Dr. Mitchell drugged one top race horse in 1997 and caused the death of another high-priced horse in 1994.

KWTV journalist Chris Halsne reported that in 1997, Mitchell gave a horse named This Lady Sings an illegal painkiller that masked the pain the horse would feel during an upcoming race. Halsne relied, for the story, on court papers filed in a federal lawsuit over the sale of the horse. Although the lawsuit did not name Mitchell as a defendant or associate him with serious wrongdoing, Halsne said in multiple reports that Mitchell had been “accused” of illegally drugging the horse.

The Oklahoma appeals court said in its opinion that Halsne’s on-air statements did “not truly and fairly report the allegations” in the federal lawsuit. Although he had read the complaint, the court said, Halsne failed to clarify in his report that the accusations in the lawsuit were aimed at someone other than Mitchell.

With respect to the 1994 incident, Halsne relied on the allegations of a horse racing official who believed that Mitchell had caused the death of another horse named Doo Dominate. Mitchell had inspected and treated Doo Dominate before a race in New Mexico in which the horse collapsed and had to be euthanized.

In more than one report, Halsne stated that Mitchell was “suspected” and “accused” of “killing one of the country’s best racehorses.” KWTV’s last report on the subject suggested that Mitchell had indeed been punished by state authorities for killing Doo Dominate. In fact, according to court papers, Dr. Mitchell was never sanctioned for his alleged involvement in Doo Dominate’s death. Dr. Mitchell lost his New Mexico owner’s license for practicing illegally as a veterinarian in the state — not for killing a horse.

According to KWTV’s attorney, virtually all of the information reported by KWTV came from official documents or from the official spokesperson for the New Mexico racing agency. Halsne interviewed the spokesperson, who suspected Mitchell of wrongdoing, as well as Mitchell himself. Halsne obtained documentation from the New Mexico Racing Commission, but he did not look at the entire investigative file. Instead, he relied on documents from the file that supported the statements made by the suspecting investigator.

Although the appeals court rejected the assertion that the lower court’s verdict was based on a misapplication of the libel law, it agreed with KWTV that the jury had been improperly instructed on how to award damages. The court sent the case back to the lower court for a new trial, which will focus solely on the amount of damages the veterinarian will receive.

The appeals court also denied a request by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The New York Times, Dow Jones & Co., Allbritton Communications, The Oklahoma Publishing Company and the Radio-Television News Directors Association for permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

KWTV’s attorney Jon Epstein said his firm is very likely to seek either a rehearing of the case by the appellate court or permission to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

(Mitchell v. Griffin Television; Media counsel: Robert D. Nelon and Jon Epstein, Hall, Estill, Hardwick, Gable, Golden & Nelson, Oklahoma City, Ok.) WT


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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