Study: Want Libel Suit To Go Away? Just Ask

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

The best defense for newspapers faced with a libel suit is simply to ask a judge to toss it, according to a new study.

News organizations over the past two decades have been remarkably successful with their motions asking courts to dismiss libel, privacy, or other content-related claims, a study of 661 lawsuits against media defendants found. Nearly three-quarters of those cases — 482 lawsuits representing 72.9% of cases examined — ended with a trial or appeals court granting a motion to dismiss. In another 70 cases, representing 10.6% of all the suits, courts granted partial motions to dismiss.

The study examined lawsuits filed between 1983 and 2003, and was conducted by the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC), a New York City-based non-profit association of publishers, broadcasters, media insurance companies, and other media-related interests.

MLRC Executive Director Sandra Baron said motions to dismiss “area potent remedy for media defendants that should be used at all appropriate opportunities to stop wrongful litigation before it consumes scarce resources and distracts from the media’s important role of informing the public.”

State courts are more sympathetic to news organizations seeking dismissals, the MLRC found. It said state courts were more likely to grant dismissals at the lower court level — and uphold them on appeal — than were federal courts.

It’s also easier to get motions of dismissal in cases involving plaintiffs who are classified as “public” figures than those considered “private” figures. Media defendants won 70% of dismissal motions in cases involving public figures, but just 51.9% against cases brought by private figures.

The issue most frequently argued in dismissal motions by news organizations was whether or not the content at the center of the lawsuit was, in fact, defamatory. The media won 70% of the time when that issue was involved, the MLRC study found.

The full report is available at a cost of $35 from the MLRC by calling (212) 337-0200.

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