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Times Publishing hit with $10 million judgment in libel suit

ST. PETERSBURG — The former chief of medicine at Bay Pines VA Medical Center prevailed Friday in a libel lawsuit against Times Publishing Co.

The jury found against the parent company of the St. Petersburg Times and awarded Dr. Harold L. Kennedy more than $10 million in damages.

"We are very disappointed by the verdict," said Times Executive Editor and Vice President Neil Brown. "We believe our reporting and editing of these stories met the highest journalistic and ethical standards.

"The Times will appeal the jury's decision.''

The lawsuit was filed over three articles that appeared in the Times in December 2003 about Kennedy's reassignment from chief of medicine to his subspecialty of cardiology. Kennedy filed suit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in 2005.

The first article appeared Dec. 4 under the byline of staff writer Paul de la Garza. He also wrote the follow-up articles that ran Dec. 9 and 10. De la Garza died of a heart attack in 2006 at age 44.

Kennedy's attorneys alleged that the stories damaged their client personally and professionally and contained numerous defamatory statements and implications.

During Friday's closing arguments, plaintiff's attorney Timothy Weber told the jury the only way to restore his client's reputation was to find against Times Publishing and award punitive damages to Kennedy.

"He was not given a fair shake by the defendant," Weber said. "The defendant cared little for his reputation when it published the article."

Times attorney Alison Steele told the jury the plaintiff failed to prove the stories were false.

"What the Times published was true," Steele said.

Kennedy now lives in St. Louis and consults in Europe for the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, according to his attorney.

"He's extremely pleased to regain his good name," Weber said.

The jury of four women and two men awarded Kennedy $5.1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The trial lasted five days.

Though de la Garza died in 2006, the newspaper sought to use his reporting notes as evidence in its defense. But a judge excluded them from the trial.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Times Publishing hit with $10 million judgment in libel suit 08/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 2:05am]
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