Jury rules against Virginian-Pilot in libel case, editor ‘bewildered’

A jury on Thursday awarded $3 million to an assistant principal who sued the Virginian-Pilot for libel after it reported that his son wasn’t disciplined by the school system after the boy was arrested for felony assault.

“This is frustrating,” editor Denis Finley says in his newspaper’s story. “Everything we wrote about Mr. Webb was accurate and true.”

Finley sent this email to his staff earlier today:

Denis Finley to NEWS [and others]

As you all know by now, we lost the second Webb case to the tune of $3 million. I’m at a loss, to be honest. I don’t think this case could have been any clearer for us. I still don’t understand why it ever even proceeded to a jury.

This isn’t over of course. We are petitioning the court to have the verdict set aside. That process should take two to three months. We think we have a very good case and hope that reason will prevail. If the judge does not set the verdict aside, we will appeal.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, allow me to remind you:

* Be careful what you say in an email about any story. Emails, even innocuous ones, are discoverable in a lawsuit and can be used against us. For example, I called Lou’s story a “yarn” in an email recognizing him for the story. I was not called to testify in this case, but I could have been called to explain what I meant by the word “yarn.” Webb’s lawyer called me in the first case and tried to make the point that “yarn” meant the story was made up. Of course it was not, and “yarn” was simply another word for a good story.

* If you are writing a story that references court testimony, be sure to attribute to court testimony.

* If you are quoting a report or testimony, use the exact words. For example, if a report says a teacher demanded that students do something, use “demanded” in the story, don’t change it to another word, like “coerce” for example.

Please be aware this is no reflection on Lou Hansen, who did everything a good reporter is supposed to do. We never imagined that the father, (who is a public official), of two young men who beat up the parent of another student at 1 a.m. could win a defamation suit despite the fact that no damages could be proved and nothing in the story indicated that the father did anything to get one of the sons preferential treatment at school. Apparently, the jury saw this, but I am bewildered as to how they did.

I can answer any questions any of you might have. Just email me or stop by.

Thanks, Denis

* Man awarded $3 million in Pilot libel suit (Virginian-Pilot)

UPDATE: St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter David Hanners writes on my Facebook wall:

I remember the Dallas Morning News’s lawyers always told us to refer to what we wrote as an “article,” not a “story,” out of fear jurors might hear “story” and think “fairy tale.”

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