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Reporters Face Fewer Libel Suits, Group Says

(CN) - Libel and privacy cases against the media continue to drop, and cases against print outlets that lead to verdict-ending trials are also declining steadily, a nonprofit dedicated to press rights reported.

The Media Law Resource Center's 2014 Report on Trials and Damages says that 12 new cases against media defendants went to trial during the last study period - seven in 2012 and five in 2013.

This is a 37 percent drop from the 19 cases reported during 2010-11, and a reduction by more than half in the average of number of cases per year from 2000 to 2010.

"This continues a long-term trend of reduced numbers of trials over the decades," the report.

Interestingly, half of the 12 recent cases originated in Virginia. Although this may be an anomaly, the report sees a possible explanation in the fact that the availability of summary judgment in Virginia state courts is very limited. Summary judgment can be granted only on the basis of the pleadings there, as no affidavits are permitted to support such a motion.

It is particularly difficult to win summary judgment in defamation cases in Virginia because the commonwealth's Supreme Court has said that "only if a plaintiff unequivocally has admitted the truth of an allegedly defamatory statement, including the fair inferences, implications, and insinuations that can be drawn from that statement, may the trial judge award summary judgment to the defendant on the basis that the statement is true."

Of the 12 cases that went to trial in 2012-13, involving libel, privacy and related claims against media defendants, eight resulted in verdicts. Four of the verdicts were in favor of the media defendants, while four awarded damages to the plaintiffs.

Among these was Nov. 1, 2012, directed verdict for Britney Spears' mother, Lynne Spears, as the defendant of a libel suit filed by Sam Lufti, the troubled pop star's former manager.

Lufti admitted that he was a limited purpose public figure and the court found that he did not present any evidence of actual malice.

Tampa radio host Bubba "the Love Sponge" Clem came out on top when another radio personality, Todd "MJ" Schnitt and his wife, alleged that Clem had called Schnitt "a lying piece of crap" and a "snitch" in several on-air rants.

Jurors agreed with the defense that Clem's verbal assaults could not reasonably be understood to state actual facts.

The report makes no mention of Clem's involvement in sex-tape lawsuit involving his wife; Terry Gene Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, and Gawker.

It does mention the verdict in favor of a broadcaster sued for libel over footage of children playing near water, and a newspaper sued for defamation over an article about a union officer's felony indictment.

Courts awarded a combined total of just more than $4.55 million in damages to plaintiffs in the four cases where the media defendants lost. The highest award of $3 million went to a man who claimed that a newspaper reporter for the Virginia-Pilot knowingly implicated him in an incident involving his sons despite knowing that he was not involved.

The other judgments included one broadcast company slammed for $1.2 million over an on-air story about a business, and another broadcaster ordered to pay $17,000 for a television report that accused a Vietnam veteran of lying about his service record. A cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals also won $338,000 from related to its posts about her sex life.

Of the other four cases, two were hung juries and two were unusual instances in which the defendants and their counsel failed to appear at trial and the juries awarded damages to the plaintiffs, according to the report, which categorized the latter two cases as defaults for the purpose of the study.

Since the study began in 1980, media defendants have won 41.5 percent of the 597 trial verdicts, the MLRC says.

"While the number of trials has declined from decade to decade, the percentage of those verdicts from those trials won by defendants rose each decade through 2009," from 37.3 percent in the 1980s to 52.1 percent in the 2000, according to the report.

From 2010 to 2013, however, the percentage of media wins has dropped to 44.4 percent.

If the number of cases against news organizations that go to trial continues to decrease, the MLRC estimates that only about 78 cases will be tried from 2010 through 2019.

The report also found it notable that the choice of forum has a minor effect on whether the plaintiff or defendant prevails at trial, while the choice of forum does seem to affect the amount of the damage award. Federal courts average higher initial awards, while state courts average higher final awards, according to the report.

While media defendants won 49 percent of bench trials, only 40.9 percent of jury trials favored them, the MLRC also noted.

Another highlight of the report is the finding that public figures have had less success winning cases against news organizations since 2000.

Punitive damages awarded over the past 34 years have been unpredictable, dropping and spiking dramatically, the nonprofit found.

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