Judge OKs $18 Million "False Light" Verdict Against Pensacola Paper

PENSACOLA -- A judge has dismissed a claim for punitive damages but upheld an $18.28 million jury verdict against the Pensacola News Journal for actual harm to a businessman by casting him in a "false light."

Circuit Judge Michael Jones' decision, dated Wednesday, cleared the way for a final judgment and then the News Journal and its parent, Gannett Co. Inc., will appeal, defense lawyer Dennis Larry said Thursday.

You can bet your ass they'll appeal. Read on:

"We'll vigorously debate the various constitutional issues that are involved in this case," Larry said.

A jury in December 2003 ruled for Joe Anderson Jr., founder of the Anderson Columbia road paving company in Lake City.

He alleged the newspaper's use of the term "shot and killed" in a story falsely implied he had murdered his wife although the article two sentences later noted authorities determined it had been a hunting accident.

Truth is an absolute defense to libel. Is it not to a charge of "false light"?

This is the first false light case tried in Florida. A similar suit against the CBS program "60 Minutes" was dismissed in Sarasota because the challenged material was true.

The News Journal's lawyers last week argued Anderson's verdict should be thrown out because no other court ever has let a plaintiff win a false light case without proving the challenged material was itself false.

Bruce Rogow, a lawyer for Anderson, said it was enough to prove the impression left by the article was false even if its content was true.

I'm willing to bet this gets reversed on appeal. Either the guy "shot and killed" his wife, or he didn't. It's a pure factual issue that is either true or false. And here, he apparently admits that he did. Whether it was murder or a hunting accident is another matter, but that doesn't change the fact that the guy apparently admits that he "shot and killed" his wife. If so, it can't be tortious to state that he did.

I think the ACLU (of which I am a proud "card-carrying member") ought to get involved in this appeal. The court has set a dangerous precedent.

Think about it: The next time the "liberal media" reports that Tom DeLay illegally paid his wife and daughter $500k in campaign funds, or illegally spent PAC money to achieve redistricting in Texas, should the media be liable (to the tune of $18 million?) because this reporting makes DeLay look like the corrupt corporate whore that he is, despite the fact that the reporting is literally and demonstrably true? I don't think we want that.

[Note: Should you happen to disagree with my political alignment, simply substitute "Fox News" for "liberal media"; substitute "Bill Clinton" for "Tom Delay"; substitute "moral sleazebag" for "corrupt corporate whore"; and conceptually substitute "receiving Monica Lewinski" for "receiving illegal payments" in the text above. Then I think you'll agree with my basic premise.]

Details here from the Sun-Sentinel.