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Two media outlets due to pay large sums over libel claims

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         VIRGINIA         Libel         Nov 29, 2000    

Two media outlets due to pay large sums over libel claims

  • Airing an erroneous piece costs WJLA $2.5 million and a Virginia weekly must pay a judge for publishing false allegations.

In separate cases, two media outlets that cover Virginia are due to pay libel plaintiffs; one after a jury verdict and the other after a reaching a settlement.

A Fairfax County jury found the television station WJLA liable on Nov. 20 for defaming a Vienna orthopedist in a 1997 news story and promotions. The jury ordered the station to pay Stephen Levin $2.5 million.

The station broadcast a report of Levin’s medical treatment of pain and spasms, which involved stretching pelvic muscles. The station suggested in broadcast and print that the orthopedist was fondling women. The story was promoted both in television promotions and in The Washington Post.

The jury found that the station knew the defamatory statements were false or broadcast it with a reckless disregard for the truth. But David Branson, attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based television station, said the jury verdict form was misleading because it lumped five different published statements into one jury question. Branson said he “would be shocked” if the decision is not reversed on appeal, although the first procedural step is a motion for new trial, which has been filed with the trial court.

In the second case, the publisher of a weekly newspaper in Emporia settled a libel suit brought by a local judge for $500,000 on Nov. 27, the day before the trial was due to start. The publisher will also pay $150,000 to another plaintiff, a lawyer named in the story. The article suggested that the lawyer had bribed the judge.

A front-page article in the Independent-Messenger on Nov. 11, 1999 quoted a woman who accused a judge of accepting a bribe to dismiss her lawsuit. The judge, Robert O’Hara Jr., sued in January 2000. The newspaper published an apology and retraction in February, but the plaintiffs pressed the suit.

“Even though the reporter accurately conveyed what was said, this was a serious error in judgment, which violates the Independent-Messenger‘s editorial and journalistic standards,” the newspaper said in the apology.

(Levin v. WJLA, Media Counsel: David Branson, Washington, D.C.; O’Hara v. Byerly Publications, Inc., Media Counsel: Conrad Shumadine, Norfolk) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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