SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – ABC cannot nix claims that it falsely depicted a man on “20/20” as a financial predator of women he meets online, a judge ruled.
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In a June 2012 complaint, David Williams claimed that he dumped his former lover, Kelley Cahill, after he found her in bed with another man but she transformed details of the relationship into “a fable on the dangers of Internet dating,” falsely portraying Williams as a “cheater” who cons his girlfriends into buying him expensive gifts.
Williams said Cahill wanted to promote her online dating service iCheckmates, so she lied to ABC producers that Williams had drowned her in debt and hid his marriage from her.
Cahill approached ABC in early 2011, according to the complaint, almost five years after Williams claimed to have ended the relationship. A few months later, ABC allegedly broadcast the “20/20” story “Blinded by Love: Kelley Cahill’s Ordeal.”
The complaint in Orange County Superior Court named as defendants American Broadcasting Cos., Cahill, “20/20” presenter Christopher Cuomo and “20/20” editor Jack Pyle.
With Cahill joining them later, ABC, Cuomo and Pyle sought relief under anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law.
Judge Franz Miller concluded last week, however, that Williams had “demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the merits” of his libel claims.
Though Williams is a Colorado resident now, Miller found that California’s anti-SLAPP law, rather than the more rigorous law in Colorado, should apply. All of the “critical events at issue” occurred in the Golden State, and Williams was living in California when he dated Cahill, according to the ruling.
ABC claimed that its segment on Williams amounts to protected free speech, but Williams offered enough evidence to move forward with his claims, the court found.
Miller said that Williams showed that “at least two” of the statements from the “20/2-” broadcast constitute actionable defamation.
Those statements are “(1) that plaintiff misled Cahill into thinking that he was divorced during their tenure of their relationship, or at least until his son wrote to Cahill and informed her that his father ‘was still very married, never divorced, never separated;’ and (2) that plaintiff induced Cahill into a romantic relationship to prey on her financially, which caused her to suffer financial ruin.”
To reveal these statements as false, meanwhile, Williams has declared “that he told Cahill that he was separated but not divorced from his wife within weeks of meeting her,” according to the ruling. Miller said Williams has also proffered two witnesses who can attest to Cahill’s knowledge about that separation.
Williams, and his accountant, also have the potential to undercut Cahill’s claims that she bought Williams a Range Rover and caused her to incur significant debt such as finding a new, less affordable home, according to the ruling.
This evidence “shows that he did not prey on Cahill financially, use her for his financial benefit, cause her to incur significant debt or any debt at all, or cause her to suffer financial ruin,” Miller wrote.
The ruling explains that Williams voluntarily dismissed the third cause of action for libel, and that Cahill made 40 unsuccessful objections to the evidence.
“The evidence submitted by Cahill does not defeat plaintiff’s showing; it only raises triable issues of material fact,” he wrote. “The court denies the motion with respect to the first cause of action for libel.”
In refusing to dismiss the second cause of action for libel, the ruling notes that Williams demonstrated negligence by having an expert journalist declare that “ABC’s investigative efforts were deficient, breached the journalism code of ethics, and failed to meet the requisite standard of care.”
As for the injury that the allegedly defamatory statements caused, Williams has claimed that it affected his professional reputation and that his son’s school principal cited the broadcast in refusing to let him coach the school baseball team.
Miller said the latter cannot sustain a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The ruling also takes notice that Cahill voluntarily filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
Williams is represented by Alexander Rufus-Isaacs in Beverly Hills, Calif.
ABC, Cuomo and Pyle are represented by Nathan Siegel of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz.
David Ferrante and Thomas Porter with Wesierski & Zurek also represent the defense, according to the ruling.
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