Number Of Newspaper Libel Trials is Declining, Group Says

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Fewer libel cases brought against newspapers and other media defendants are making it to trial — and news organizations are winning more often, the latest report by the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) concludes.

“Since 1980, when MLRC began to maintain statistics on media trials, the annual average number of trials in each decade has declined, primarily the result of there having been fewer trials involving newspaper defendants,” the group’s “2005 Report on Trials and Damages” states.

“The percentage of trials won by media defendants has gone up, but the average damages award assessed against media defendants when they lose at trial has also risen.”

In 2004, 12 libel actions against media defendants went to trial — the third lowest in the 25 years that MLRC has tracked trials. In the 1980s, the New York City-based organization said there were an average of 26.3 trials a year. That dropped in the 1990s to 17.9 trials annually, and so far this decade is averaging 12.5 trials a year, MLRC said.

Last year, media defendants won seven of the dozen trials. In the five trials won by plaintiffs, the MLRC said, the average award was $3.4 million, while the median award was $625,500.

Newspapers are a declining percentage of libel actions, the MLRC found. In the 1980s, 164 of the 206 print media defendants were newspapers. Just 57 trials involved electronic news media in the 1980s. But since 2000, the number of print media trials, 32, is virtually the same as for electronic news media, 31.

There has been only two trials against Internet news organizations, with one won by the defense.

Since 1980, the media has won 199 or nearly 40% of the 527 trials the MLRC has tracked. But the media win rate is going up, the group said, and so far this decade is 54.7%. Media defendants do even better on appeal, so that just one-third of plaintiffs actually hold on to the awards of their initial trials.

Despite the media successes, awards at trial are creeping upwards, the MLRC said.

In the 1980s, initial trial awards averaged $1.5 million. That nearly doubled to just under $3 million in the 1990s — even excluding the colossal $222.7 million award after trial in MMAR Group, Inc. v. Dow Jones & Co., an award that was eventually vacated. So far in the 2000s, the MLRC said, initial trial awards are averaging $3.4 million.

California led all states with 37 trials, followed by Pennsylvania with 32; Texas with 27; and Florida with 21. “But on a per capita basis, the most trials were in Delaware, where there were 6.02 trials per one million residents,” the group said.

The full report includes state-by-state and federal circuit-by-circuit comparisons on number of trials, cases per capita, win rate, and damage awards. It’s available free to the press by calling 212.337.0200. MLRC’s Web site is www.medialaw.org.


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