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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

No Punitives Over Dr. Phil’s Tabloid Tactics

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Two brothers' failure to demand a correction from Dr. Phil over secretly videotaped admissions in the Natalee Holloway disappearance doomed their chances of collecting punitive damages, a California appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Surinam nationals Deepak and Satish Kalpoe sued Dr. Phil McGraw, Peteski Productions and CBS Paramount, who hired private investigator Jamie Skeeters to investigate Holloway's 2005 disappearance in Aruba. Skeeters met with Deepak on the pretense of exonerating him, and secretly recorded their meeting.

The show aired in September 2005, and the illicit video showed Deepak confirming that he and his brother had had sex with Holloway the night she disappeared. But after the broadcast, Deepak claimed he had not consented to Skeeters recording their meeting, denied that he and his brother had sex with Holloway and accused the producers of manipulating the video to say otherwise.

Deepak and Satish sued in 2006 for defamation, invasion of privacy, emotional distress and conspiracy. Years later, Dr. Phil and his producers filed a request to bar the brothers from presenting any evidence relating to general or punitive damages, citing a state law that requires parties seeking damages for defamation from news sources to first demand a correction or be limited to recovering only special damages.

The brothers admitted they never demanded a correction from Dr. Phil or the producers, and the trial court granted the request in 2012.

On appeal, the Kalpoes claim that the 1931 law - which was amended in 1949 to include visual broadcasts - only applies to media in the business of breaking news broadcasts, not tabloid exposes of months-old disappearances.

Writing for a three-judge panel of Second Appellate District, Judge Fred Woods noted that on its face the law in question contains nothing that limits its application to breaking news sources only. And while case-law on the issue draws a distinction between newspapers and magazines, the same cannot be said for radio and television broadcasting.

"None of these cases holds that 'visual or sound radio broadcasting' refers only to radio or television programs which disseminate breaking news," Woods wrote. "The only case which discusses the content of television shows is a federal district court case, In re Cable News Network."

In that case, "the plaintiff brought a defamation lawsuit based upon statements made in two shows broadcast on a cable news network and a magazine article which was 'inextricably intertwined' and marketed together with the shows," Woods wrote, citing the case. "The district court noted, 'At the time the statute was amended to cover television broadcasts the Legislature likely had not even contemplated magazine-style broadcasts such as those at issue here.' The court held that due to the specific circumstances of this case, the law was applicable to the broadcasts. In its opinion, however, the court noted that the legislative history indicated the statute was enacted to protect 'purveyors of breaking news' and that the California Supreme Court had applied the section based on a publication's role in disseminating breaking news, and not by its label as a newspaper or a magazine. However, it concluded that the plain statutory language makes the law applicable to all television broadcasts."

Given its history, the law applies to the type of media involved and not the specific broadcast content, according to the appeals court.

"The language of the statute clearly applies to all types of television shows," Woods wrote. "In the 64 years since the enactment of the law, the Legislature has not acted to amend it. If the Legislature, in the future, wishes to amend the statute to apply only to visual or sound radio broadcasts which relate to the immediate and rapid dissemination of news, then we have no doubt it will do so. Until then, we are bound to follow the unambiguous terms of the statute. Therefore, since the Kalpoes did not send a request for a correction, the trial court correctly granted the motion in limine to bar evidence at trial of general or punitive damages."

Classmates last saw Holloway leaving a nightclub in Oranjestad, Aruba in the early morning hours of May 30, 2005, with Dutch honors student Joran Vander Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers. Despite years of extensive searches and investigations, her body has never been found.

In 2012, an Alabama probate judge signed an order declaring Natalee legally dead.

Aruban police arrested the Kalpoe brothers and Vander Sloot numerous times over the years before finally dropping the case entirely in 2007.

Vander Sloot is currently serving 28 years in a Peruvian prison after confessing to the robbery and murder of Stephany Flores Ramirez. He said at the time that he beat and strangled Ramirez after he caught her looking at his laptop.

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