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Tuesday, 06 January 2009 12:38

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Libel

Texas Libel Cases

Feazell v. WFAA-TV

On April 19, 1991, a state jury in Waco returned a libel verdict of $58 million against WFAA-TV in Dallas in favor of the former district attorney of McLennan County, Vic Feazell.

The suit stemmed from 11 reports broadcast on WFAA in 1985. They were the work of an investigative reporter for the station, Charles Duncan. The reports claimed wrongdoing by Feazell in connection with his duties as the district attorney.

Feazell began having difficulty with state and federal law enforcement agencies when they perceived that he was intruding in the Henry Lee Lucas case. Feazell's office proved that Lucas could not have been involved in three McLennan County murder cases for which Lucas had been indicted. He also cast doubt on the handling of Lucas by a special task force set up under the Texas Department of Public Safety.

At that point the Department of Public Safety began investigating Feazell and managed to get the Federal Bureau of Investigation involved.

WFAA was reporting the activities of the Texas Department of Public Safety and ran stories that said Feazell was involved in taking money from defendants and lawyers so that clients could get lesser punishment for DWI charges.

At the behest of the United States attorney's office, a federal grand jury indicted Feazell. He was brought to trial in Austin and was found not guilty in 1987.

Feazell then sued WFAA for libel. The trial was held in Waco in the spring of 1991. The jury found for Feazell and returned a verdict for $58 million in damages.

He and WFAA agreed to settle the case. The amount was not disclosed.

The award in the Feazell case was the record amount ever given a plaintiff in a libel case in the United States.

MMAR v. Dow Jones

MMAR was a Houston company that dealt in mortgage-backed securities. On October 21, 1993, The Wall Street Journal ran an article questioning the firm’s business practices. A year later MMAR sued Dow Jones, contending that The Wall Street Journal article had caused the collapse of the company.

At a trial in federal court in Houston in 1997, a jury found for MMAR and returned a verdict for $22.7 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages. This is the record award in a libel case in the United States.

After the trial, the judge threw out the $200 million punitive-damage part of the award on the grounds that evidence didn’t support the malice standard necessary for punitive damages.

In 1998, a former MMAR employee revealed to the Dow Jones lawyers that tapes existed that would support the defense. The tapes had not been made available to the defense at the time of the trial.

In August 1999 the trial judge threw out the remaining $22.7 million in compensatory damages. MMAR decided not to pursue the case any further.

Sylvester Turner v. KTRK Television

Another case that originated in Houston drew national attention.

In 1991, Sylvester Turner, a Texas state representative, was involved in a close race for mayor of Houston. Just before the election, Wayne Dolcefino of KTRK-TV reported a story involving Turner and a man who had faked his death for insurance money. Turner lost the election and sued.

At the trial in state court in October 1996, a jury returned a verdict for Turner or $5.55 million -- $4.5 million in punitive damages against the station, $500,000 in punitive damages against Dolcefino and $550,000 in actual or compensatory damages against the station.

The trial judge reduced the punitive damages against the station to $2.2 million on the grounds that state law limits punitive damages to four times the amount of compensatory damages.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 14th District Court of Appeals ruled that the broadcasts were essentially true and threw out the entire award. (987 S.W.2d 100) Turner appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.

On December 21, 2000, the Supreme Court of Texas affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals but for different reasons.

The Supreme Court said that Dolcefino reported largely true statements but misled viewers. It said that because Turner was a public figure, he had to show clear and convincing evidence of actual malice.

Turner v. KTRK Television, Inc. and Wayne Dolcefino, 38 S.W.2d 103 (2000)

Veggie Libel Law

In 1996 Oprah Winfrey and a guest on her television program were discussing the beef supply in the United States in the context of mad cow disease that had broken out in England. Cattlemen in Texas took offense and sued in federal court.

They were relying on a veggie libel law passed by the Texas legislature in 1995. The law said that anyone who made false disparaging remarks against perishable foods could be sued for damages. The party bringing the suit would have to prove damages.

The Winfrey trial took place in federal court in Amarillo in 1998. During the trial, the judge dismissed the part of the suit dealing with the veggie law on the grounds that the statutory requirements for the case had not been met. The judge let stand the cattlemen’s claim that they had been defamed.

The jury sided with Winfrey. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict two years later.

The veggie libel law is still on the books in Texas.

Other Texas Cases

Of course, current libel cases will be decided based on recent precedents. Nevertheless, several older Texas cases deal with issues that remain significant today. They are worth examining.

Raymundo Davila v. The Caller Times

In 1956, the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi used an Associated Press story that said a Texas Ranger had killed Raymundo Davila of Laredo. Davila, the article said, was stopped six miles east of Freer by the Ranger. Davila fired on the Ranger and the Ranger shot and killed him.

As it turned out, the dead man wasn’t Raymundo Davila but his brother, Jesus Davila. Raymundo Davila sued the Caller-Times.

The question before the Court of Civil Appeals in San Antonio was whether the publication was privileged. The court ruled that it was not.

The case may be found at 311 S.W. 2d 945 (1958)

El Paso Times v. Richard C. Trexler

The El Paso Times ran an editorial concerning the participation of a teacher at the University of Texas at El Paso, Richard C. Trexler, in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration.

The Times editorial said that although it did not agree with Trexler’s views, it did uphold and agree with his right to express those views, including the right to be involved in a peaceful anti-war demonstration.

Later the newspaper ran a letter from a reader that said among other things: “There was a time when rats paid the penalty for treason against our Republic.”

The trial court ruled that Trexler was a public figure and a jury ruled against him. The Court of Civil Appeals reversed and remanded the case.

The Supreme Court of Texas ruled that the evidence did not support actual malice as defined in New York Times v. Sullivan: “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” The judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals was reversed and the judgment of the trial court was affirmed.

This case is at 447 S.W. 2d 403 (1969)

John E. Foster v. Laredo Newspapers, Inc.

In 1973, the Laredo Times ran a story concerning a subdivision that had a flooding problem. The Times said that a surveyor, John E. Foster, had platted the subdivision. The story was incorrect in that the surveyor had not done the work.

The trial court granted summary judgment and the court of appeals affirmed – both on the grounds that the surveyor was a public official or public figure.

In 1976 the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that a jury must decide the issues in the case.

The case is 541 SW2d 809 (1976)

Denton Publishing Company v. D.B. Boyd

In 1967, a reporter for the Denton Record-Chronicle attended a meeting of the city council and reported the next day on various actions by the council.

The story said that a developer, D.B. Boyd, had failed to pave streets because he had declared bankruptcy.

The newspaper was informed that Boyd had not declared bankruptcy, and it ran a correction. Boyd won a trial and the newspaper appealed.

The Supreme Court of Texas ruled that the newspaper account was not privileged. The opinion of the court said that the story did not say that the statements about the developer being bankrupt were made by someone at the city council meeting. Instead, it was the reporter who said, “The developer…declared bankruptcy…”

“The problem arises,” the opinion said, “because the article as published is subject to interpretation that, as a matter of background information, Boyd was in fact bankrupt instead of reporting that it was stated as the City Council meeting that he was bankrupt. The publication would be within the privilege provided by statute as long as it purported to be, and was, only a fair, true and impartial report of what was stated at the meeting, regardless of whether the facts under discussion at such meeting were in fact true, unless the report was made with malice.”

Cited as 460 S.W.2d 881 (1970)