Journos Denied Privilege in CA Defamation Case

     SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) – Privilege does not protect the blog CalCoastNews from claims that it defamed a waste-management executive, an appeals court ruled.
     Charles Tenborg, CEO and president of Eco Solutions in Arroyo Grande, filed his 2013 lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court against CalCoastNews and reporters Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn.
     The 2012 article at issue reported that Tenborg’s company illegally transported hazardous waste while he managed a waste-disposal site for San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority.
     Citing a staff investigation, the article suggested that Tenborg had encouraged public agencies to ignore state law and that he had been fired from a previous job with the county.
     Titled “Hazardous Waste Chief Skirts Law,” Tenborg said that the article intentionally included false information that could damage his reputation.
     “I could not sit idly by and watch my hard-earned reputation be destroyed by these falsehoods,” Tenborg said in a statement issued when the suit was filed.
     He noted that he filed suit after CalCoastNews refused his demands for a retraction.
     While the defendants tried to quash suit with a motion under California’s anti-SLAPP law, short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Partipation, the trial court found that the privilege of fair and true reports of a public proceeding does not protect the article.
     In that ruling, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman said Tenborg had provided sufficient evidence to establish that false statements were made and that “a few of the statements are clearly defamatory.”
     The state’s second appellate district affirmed Wednesday in an unpublished opinion.
     Tenborg “has shown a probability of prevailing on his libel claim,” Justice Steven Perren wrote for a three-person panel.
     CalCoastNews failed to sway the court that Tenborg did not establish that the “gist” and “sting” of each of the statements was false.
     Though CalCoastNews provided a declaration from a former Eco Solutions employee who claimed to have witnessed Tenborg illegally dispose hazardous waste, Perren said that source lacked credibility.
     The individual in question had been fired and was denied a license to transport hazardous waste because of an incident in which authorities thought he was transporting a pipe bomb, according to the ruling.
     CalCoastNews likewise cannot connect its reporting to a 2010 public meeting of the San Luis Obispo Stormwater Management Team, the court found.
     Compounding the fact that the statements made at that meeting are disputed, Perren noted that the article does not actually suggest that any of the information in the story came from a public hearing.
     “To the contrary, the article suggests in its opening paragraph that it is the product of ‘a CalCoastNews investigation,'” the 12-page decision states.
     Perren added that “a reader of the article would have no understanding that the article was a report on what took place at the meeting.”
     Tenborg is likely to show that statements about him illegally transporting waste and encouraging public agencies to ignore state law would injure him professionally as an environmental contractor, the court found.
     Kevin Clune, an attorney for Tenborg with the San Francisco firm Kerr and Wagstaffe, applauded the decision.
     “From a practical perspective, the fact that he has overcome this really substantial obstacle in a defamation suit is a telling sign that he’ll be successful at trial,” Clune told New Times.
     Velie meanwhile told New Times that CalCoastNews will present more evidence to support their defense in court.
     “We are very confident that the outcome of the trial will be very favorable to CalCoastNews,” she said.
     A month before Tenborg filed his suit, CalCoastNews was involved in another defamation lawsuit. In that case, Dee Torres, a homeless-services coordinator for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, sued a private investigator who assisted CalCoastNews, saying the investigator had accused her of stealing from the homeless. In that lawsuit, which made clear that CalCoast News might be named as a defendant later, a judge granted the defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, saying Torres was a public figure and that the investigator did not act with actual malice.

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