Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

A true story may cost newspaper $18-million

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's free press could be paralyzed if the courts affirm an $18-million judgment against the Pensacola News Journal for publishing a true story about a man who shot and killed his wife while a divorce was pending.

That was the claim from Robert C. Bernius, a Washington lawyer arguing Thursday before the Florida Supreme Court for the newspaper in a case with important consequences for Florida journalism.

The case involves a few paragraphs that appeared in the middle of a story about Joe Anderson, a Dixie County man who owned one of the state's largest paving companies.

The News Journal was writing about environmental issues surrounding Anderson's paving company in 1998 and reported that while on probation for mail fraud, Anderson shot and killed his wife with a 12-gauge shotgun just days after Anderson filed for divorce. The story said law enforcement officers concluded the shooting was a hunting accident.

Although accurate, the information inserted in the middle of a story about the paving company inflicted emotional distress on Anderson by portraying him as his wife's killer, argues Bruce S. Rogow, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents Anderson.

Instead of alleging libel and defamation, Anderson accused the newspaper of putting him in a "false light," and in 2003, a Pensacola jury awarded him $18-million. False light has never been recognized as an action for seeking damages by Florida's highest court.

The 1st District Court of Appeal overturned the verdict because the suit was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations that applies to traditional libel and defamation suits. Lawyers for Anderson argue that a four-year statute of limitations should apply to a false light claim.

On Thursday, high court justices questioned whether newspapers should be punished for accurate reporting where no malice or reckless disregard of the truth is alleged. They questioned how an editor would be able to determine in advance that true information would inflict actionable damages on an individual.

"If you can sue somebody for making a true statement, it seems that would be a great impediment to free speech and freedom of the press," said Justice Charles T. Wells.

"Isn't the false light standard awfully vague for the courts and juries to apply with precision?" asked Justice Harry Lee Anstead. "Generally speaking we've been a society that's supposed to have a thick skin, and this is a thin-skinned standard."

The Pensacola newspaper case was linked with a second case involving a lawsuit against the group Jews for Jesus. A Palm Beach County woman alleged that one of the group's newsletters made it appear that the woman was a convert to Christianity. That lawsuit was dismissed by the trial court and the 4th District Court of Appeal asked the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Florida allows false light-invasion of privacy lawsuits.

The Gannett Co., owner of the News Journal, drew support from Florida's First Amendment Foundation and other newspapers that say the court's decision could eviscerate First Amendment protections and limit the ability of newspapers to inform the public.

The court did not immediately issue a ruling.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

A true story may cost newspaper $18-million 03/06/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2008 12:16am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. James Wilder Jr. back at running back...in Canada

    Blogs

    Remember when former Plant High star and Florida State running back James Wilder Jr. announced he was switching to linebacker?

    That was short-lived, apparently.

  2. Unlicensed contractor accused of faking death triggers policy change at Pinellas construction licensing board

    Local Government

    The unlicensed contractor accused of faking his death to avoid angry homeowners has triggered an immediate change in policy at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

    Last year Glenn and Judith Holland said they paid a contractor thousands of dollars to renovate their future retirement home in Seminole. But when they tried to move in on Dec. 14, they said the home was in shambles and uninhabitable. They sent a text message to contractor Marc Anthony Perez at 12:36 p.m. looking for answers. Fourteen minutes later, they got back this text: "This is Marc's daughter, dad passed away on the 7th of December in a car accident. Sorry." Turns out Perez was still alive. Now the Hollands are suing him in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  3. What you need to know for Tuesday, June 27

    News

    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    Former St. Petersburg mayor and current mayoral candidate Rick Baker, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman square off tonight in a debate. [Times]
  4. Once 'angry' about Obamacare, Republican David Jolly came to see it as 'safety net'

    Blogs

    Former Congressman David Jolly, who ran against Obamacare in 2013, said in an interview Monday night that he now considers it a "safety net."

  5. Five children hospitalized after chlorine release at Tampa pool store

    Accidents

    Five children were sickened at a pool store north of Tampa on Monday after a cloud of chlorine was released, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.