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U.S. Supreme Court rejects 15-year-old libel case

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Libel    

U.S. Supreme Court rejects 15-year-old libel case

  • High court refuses to examine whether a business executive is a public official; denial upholds $2.25 million libel award against the Santa Barbara News-Press.

June 3, 2004 — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the appeal of a California newspaper that had asked it to decide whether a Beverly Hills business executive is a public figure.

Beverly Hills businessman Leonard M. Ross filed the action in 1989, accusing the Santa Barbara News-Press of libeling him in articles that falsely linked him to a federal investigation for defrauding investors.

Ross, who is also an attorney, was a major stockholder in the former Santa Barbara Savings and Loan, according to The Associated Press. Both the trial court and the California Court of Appeal held that Ross is not a public figure, which means he had a lesser burden of proof to satisfy his libel claim.

To prevail on a libel claim against a public figure, a plaintiff must meet the higher standard of actual malice, defined as knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. For a libel suit regarding a private person, a plaintiff must show at least negligence.

The News-Press argued to the U.S. Supreme Court in its petition that Ross is a public figure and that appeals courts should independently review evidence of falsity in libel cases. The Court of Appeal refused to review additional evidence offered by the newspaper and ruled on the facts established at the trial stage.

The defendants — the News-Press , its former owner, The New York Times Co., reporter Kathleen Sharp and executive editor David McCumber — appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after the California Supreme Court denied review in January.

Without comment, 15 years since the start of litigation, the nation’s high court refused to hear the case. Ross filed a concurrent appeal, asking the Supreme Court to allow additional damages against the newspaper, but the justices turned him down as well.

“We are disappointed that the Court did not accept our petition because we thought it was time to decide this,” said defense attorney Kelli Sager in Los Angeles.

“The circuits are split on both issues raised, and that creates a problem when there is no clear decision,” she added. “Generally, the Court wants to step in when there is a split like this.”

In the 1984 case Bose v. Consumers Union , the Supreme Court ruled that appeals courts are required to review evidence that establishes malice in libel cases. However, lower courts have split on whether that rule extends to falsity in libel cases. The second issue over which the circuits have split is the definition of a public figure.

The case was tried twice in lower courts. The first verdict, in October 1993, led a jury to award Ross $7.5 million. But that award was set aside in January 1994 by a judge who ordered a new trial, finding the jury’s verdict factually inconsistent and excessive. The second result, in 2001, resulted in a $2.25 million judgment for Ross. That jury found that while the newspaper and a reporter showed no malice or ill will, the articles did libel Ross, according to court documents.

Sager has represented the newspaper since the suit was filed. Santa Barbara venture capitalist Wendy McCaw bought the News-Press in July 2000 under the name Ampersand Publishing. However, The New York Times Co., which acquired the newspaper in 1985, is responsible for the $2.25 million in damages.

(Santa Barbara News-Press v. Ross; Ross v. Santa Barbara News-Press; Media Counsel: Kelli Sager, Davis Wright Tremaine, Los Angeles) CZ

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