Libel threat dips p. 29

By: George Garneau LIBEL PLAINTIFFS HAVE won less on average in the past two years than they have in five years, a media group said.
The Libel Defense Resource Center, a group funded by the media, also said the average number of libel cases tried per year and the number of trials lost by the media dropped to their lowest levels since the group began tracking the data in 1980.
There were 12 libel trials and 5.5 losses per year in the past two years, compared with 25 trials and more than 15 losses a year during the 1980s, the LDRC said.
The media won 45.5% of libel trials in the past two years, compared with 26.3% in the 1980s.
There were no libel awards of more than $10 million in the two-year period, compared with six in 1990-91 and four in the 1980s.
Declines notwithstanding, libel awards still averaged more than $1 million in 1992-93, compared with $1.5 million in the 1980s, the New York-based organization said.
LDRC general counsel Henry Kaufman welcomed the decline in the number of trials, losses and "mega-awards" but warned not to overstate the significance of the findings.
"Libel awards averaging in excess of $1 million are still a chilling phenomenon," he said.
Warning that it is too soon to determine a downward trend, he pointed out that the average libel judgment soared from less than $500,000 in 1987-88 to $4 million in 1989-90 to $8 million in 1990-91.
"In short," Kaufman concluded, "the problem of megalibel awards has by no means been resolved."
The study of 1992-93 also found:
? Of 11 libel cases lost by the media, two awards were more than $1 million. One was a $7.5 million verdict. The median award was $159,000.
? Three of the damage awards included punitive damages, which averaged $564,000.
? Media defendants won 45.5% of the 24 jury trials they faced.
? Results on appeal were not complete, but in more than one-third of the cases in which the media were assessed damages, awards were vacated or remitted. Only one of five pending appeals was resolved, with the libel judgment reversed.


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