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CBS Faces Defamation Claim Over Dead Mice

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A Pennsylvania realtor can pursue her claim that CBS falsely accused her of placing dead mice and snakes in her neighbor's yard to "sabotage" the house's marketability, a federal judge ruled.

The dispute stems from a vandalism report that Andrea Straub's then-neighbor, Mary Catherine Martell, made to police in Haverford, Pa., in June 2013.

Days later, CBS repeatedly broadcast its interview with Eric Welsch, who had been taking care of the elderly Martell's property while she was in a rehabilitation facility, according to court records.

When Martell first listed her home for sale in April, "strange things started happening," Welsch reportedly told CBS reporter Walt Hunter.

"He found dead mice on two occasions on the driveway," CBS allegedly reported.

Welsch then "set up surveillance cameras and, after spotting figures on the driveway, found a dead snake still stuck to a glue trap," according to CBS.

The footage also reportedly shows someone "trampling the sale sign onto the ground," court records show.

The videos led police to issue citations for harassment and disorderly conduct to Straub and her then-husband, Jonathan, both realtors for Pennsylvania's Main Line firm, CBS reported.

"While the citation does not specifically accuse the Straubs of leaving the mice, the snake, and knocking down the signs, they are fined $446 each," CBS reported.

CBS allegedly claimed in its broadcasts that it had "exclusive surveillance video" of the perpetrators caught "in the act" of their "home sale sabotage" campaign.

Straub, in turn, sued CBS Broadcasting for defamation in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in March 2014, and the case was removed to federal court months later.

CBS moved for summary judgment, arguing the suit is barred by the fair report privilege.

But Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson denied the motion Friday, finding that CBS may have acted with actual malice.

"Most notably, to the extent the jury concludes that defendant's broadcast claimed that defendant possessed exclusive video of plaintiff 'in the act' of throwing dead mice and snakes on her neighbor's property, no such video exists," Baylson wrote. "Defendant may have either known or recklessly disregarded the fact that that assertion was false in claiming otherwise."

Plus, an article about Lower Merion police officer Joanne Pepitone's June 2013 press briefing on the matter, run by a local publication, the Ardmore-Merion-Wynnewood Patch, contains allegations absent from the initial vandalism incident report, the ruling states.

"Defendant and plaintiff also vigorously contest whether Hunter confirmed the details of the Patch article with officer Pepitone before running the story," Baylson wrote. "If Hunter added references to plaintiff in his broadcast that the police did not make in their briefing, that would bear on actual malice."

The judge also found that "it is undisputed that Hunter relied on Welsch without independently assessing Welsch's credibility, even though Welsch had demonstrably lied about both possessing certain video and having turned it over to the police."

"The Supreme Court has held that similar behavior can support an inference of actual malice," Baylson noted in the 20-page opinion.

CBS spokeswoman Joanne Calabria declined to comment on the ruling. Straub's attorneys did not immediately return an emailed request for comment sent on Sunday.

Located about 12 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Haverford Township has an estimated population of more than 48,000 people. It is 91.4 percent white and 2.7 percent black, with a median household income of more than $93,000, according to census data.

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