ST. PETERSBURG — A judge has overturned a $10-million libel verdict concerning articles the St. Petersburg Times wrote in 2003 about the former chief of medicine at Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
In a terse two-page ruling, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino wrote this week that evidence in the case was "insufficient to cross the threshold required by the First Amendment."
Rondolino also was the trial judge.
"We are extremely pleased," said attorney Alison Steele, who represented the Times. She said she was "most thrilled" for the editors "whose judgments and decisionmaking are vindicated."
"Despite the jury's verdict, we remained confident in the work and expected to eventually reach this result," said Times chairman and CEO Paul C. Tash. "But of course we're glad that we arrived here sooner rather than later."
The articles focused on Dr. Harold L. Kennedy and his reassignment from chief of medicine to his subspecialty of cardiology at the VA.
Kennedy's attorney Timothy Weber said his client intends to appeal.
"Dr. Kennedy is going to continue to fight on for his good name," he said. Weber said the case would be appealed to a three-judge panel on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, and "they're going to find plenty of evidence of malice" on the part of the Times.
The articles were written by Paul de la Garza, who died of a heart attack in 2006.
Steele acknowledged that it's unusual for judges to overturn verdicts in most civil cases. But it's much more common in libel cases, she said. That's because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. In a case like this one, Kennedy needed to prove not only that the articles were false, but that the Times demonstrated "actual malice."
The plaintiffs argued that portions of the articles were untrue, and that the Times knew or should have known they were untrue. Weber noted on Friday that the judge did not specifically say whether he believed the articles were true.
The Times argued at trial, and in its motion to the judge, that the articles were accurate.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.