After finding Tennessee’s new anti-SLAPP law constitutional, a judge hearing a $250 million defamation case against two TV stations said he did not have jurisdiction over the California station that reported on a Tennessee-based tiny home.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — The camera at the end of an episode of A&E’s show “Tiny House Nation” swept over the green hills of Tennessee and settled into featuring the 400-square-foot tiny home built for a musician moving from California to Nashville.
By the end of that episode named “Going Tiny in Music City,” which aired in May 2019, the house’s builders managed to squeeze Benjamin Richards, his wife, two daughters and a baby grand piano into the home.
But the real drama started after the cameras stopped rolling.
A disagreement over payment between the Richards family and the builder of the tiny home, Mike Bedsole and his company Tiny House Chattanooga, resulted in Bedsole obtaining a detainer warrant, evicting the family and taking possession of the home. Months later, in June 2020, Bedsole filed a defamation lawsuit against two TV stations that did stories about the situation, saying the stories “alleged or implied theft or illegal behavior by Mr. Bedsole.”
In a hearing held over Zoom on Thursday, Hamilton County Judge Kyle Hedrick heard arguments about a flurry of motions and briefs over whether he should dismiss the $250 million suit, including a request to toss the case under the new Tennessee Public Participation Act, or TPPA.
Though he took most of the arguments under advisement, Hedrick announced he would issue a ruling saying he did not have the jurisdiction over the California television station that is a defendant in the case.
While Hedrick thought Bedsole’s attorney Buck Dougherty “made an excellent argument in favor of his clients,” the judge said he had come to that conclusion after reading filings in the case.
Attorneys for KABC-TV in Los Angeles argued in its motion that the news report that the station made was directed at its audience in Southern California, and the fact residents of Tennessee could access the article over the internet did not give the Tennessee court jurisdiction.
Attorneys for the two TV stations – the other being WTVC-TV News Channel 9 in Chattanooga, seat of Hamilton County – petitioned the court to swat away the lawsuit by using the new Tennessee law intended to quickly stop frivolous lawsuits filed to intimidate people who are engaged in speech involving matters of public concern.
The TPPA is Tennessee’s version of an anti-SLAPP law, which are designed to shoot down strategic lawsuits against public participation. Thirty states in the nation have similar anti-SLAPP statutes and Tennessee expanded its law in 2019. Used only a handful of times so far, it is largely untested.
In a four-page ruling Wednesday, Hedrick ruled the TPPA was constitutional.
At a hearing last week, Dougherty argued the TPPA violated the separation of powers because it amounted to the General Assembly telling the Tennessee judiciary what procedure to use.
But the legislature never directed judges how to rule in these types of cases, Hedrick determined.
“To the contrary: not only is the trial court’s discretion and decision making unimpaired – the statute actually broadens the court’s authority to move past the very low requirements of Rules 8 and 12, and to impose attorney’s fees following a burden shift not previously available to litigants,” the ruling states.
As part of his arguments, Dougherty said the heart of the builder’s defamation claim centered around the facts that he says were left out of the story: a judge in Bradley County said Bedsole had possession of the house in a March 2019 interlocutory order that was contested months before the stations started looking into the situation.
“[When] you omit something as glaring as Bedsole wins, Tiny House Chattanooga wins, it’s contested, he’s already won, I mean, it would be as if someone went on the air and reported that somehow Tom Brady and the Buccaneers lost the Super Bowl. This is everything,” Dougherty said Thursday.
But attorney Nathan Siegal, who represents KABC, said the station’s article about the tiny house dispute repeatedly references the court proceedings in Tennessee, mentioning a judge ordered Richards and his family evicted.
Siegal said some parts of KABC’s story reported some of Richards’ interaction with Bedsole that may seem unflattering, but Bedsole did not say in the complaint they were false. The question is whether a material omission allegedly created a defamatory meaning, the attorney added.
“This is the thing, your honor, you can’t go into court saying ‘gosh, you put this story on and it didn’t make me look good,’” Siegal said. “Nobody has a right to positive news stories.”
At the end of the hearing, Hedrick took the arguments under advisement and said he would issue a ruling as soon as he could, given his schedule.
While giving his reason for why he did not want to set a date for a trial yet, Hedrick said, “there is approximately an 100% chance of an appeal here.”