Small Fort Bend Paper Hit With $1 Million Libel Verdict on Story About Son of Sheriff's Deputy
$50K in actual damages, $1 million in punitives.
The Fort Bend Star, a small but often feisty publication that covers county events and politics, has been slammed with a million-dollar libel verdict for a story it ran about a sheriff's deputy and his sons.
A jury awarded Wade Brady, the son of Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office chief deputy Craig Brady, $1 million for a story written eight years ago, Fort Bend Now reports.
The Star's LeaAnne Klentzman, who was also a defendant in the suit
reported that following an incident in which Wade Brady was ticketed for minor in possession and [his brother] Cullen Brady was arrested by a Department of Public Safety trooper for erratic driving, Craig Brady, their father, conducted "roadside suppression hearings" of deputies in an effort to gather all evidence collected during the incident.
Wade Brady sued because the story did not mention he was acquitted of the MIP charge.
Star publisher Beverly Carter tells Hair Balls she will be appealing.
"Of course we plan to appeal. From what I understand, this verdict changes libel law as we know it today," she said. "Even today, I wouldn't change one word in the story."
John Edwards, an attorney with the First Amendment specialists Jackson Walker (who has been handling the case pro bono since 2003), said he was "very disappointed" with the decision but thinks there are excellent grounds to appeal.
The story appeared six months after the incident and was a larger piece on the actions of Deputy Brady, he said, the MIP charge was simply "to give context to what the father was doing."
"We thought that this article was questioning a public official's actions and in that context, a higher burden ought to apply," he says. "Otherwise, if the media is questioning a public official and there's a private person involved in any way, all of a sudden the libel plaintiff has a lower burden...So it kinda has a chilling effect on reporting."
John Zavitsanos, who represented Brady, said the suit was filed after the paper refused to print a retraction.
"This case was about a reporter and newspaper publishing false allegations to try and embarrass a family," he said. "We are grateful that the jury has made the paper and Ms. Klentzman take responsibility for their words and actions."
Edwards criticized the judge's charge to the jury, which stated the case "was not a matter of public concern or interest."
"That alters the burden of proof...We had to prove truth instead of them prove falsity. And in a libel suit, to have the plaintiffs not have to prove falsity, it's insane."
He said the story contained "neither false statements nor false impressions."
There's a lot of small-town politics involved in the case: The elder Brady is running for sheriff, Carter, the publisher, has long been critical of him in stories, and the reporter worked for the sheriff's office for 20 years.
The verdict was 10-2. Brady's son received $50,000 in actual damages -- $30,000 for harming his reputation and $20,000 for mental anguish. The reporter was hit with $30,000 in punitive damages, and the paper with $1 million.