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Above The Law(Suit): $50M Defamation Claim Can Proceed

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By William Peacock, Esq. on December 16, 2014 1:45 PM

Arguably, it was a simple reporting mistake. But that simple mistake could cost legal tabloid-blog Above The Law as much as $50 million.

Meanith Huon, 44, is a Chicago attorney. He was once accused of and charged with rape. A jury, however, made short work of the charges and acquitted him. An ATL blogger, while the case was pending, mistook past news reports about the same incident as prior accusations of rape, falsely branding Huon as a serial rapist with a few careless keystrokes.

Huon responded by branding the reporting mistake as defamation. And earlier this month, a district court judge allowed his claim against ATL to move forward.

He Said, She Said, They Said, Jury Said

My Civil Procedure professor liked to ask, "What happened in the real world that led to this case?" A guy and a girl met. There may have been an Internet ad for models involved. Alcohol was consumed. Eventually, sexual acts seem to have occurred whist the man was driving.

A few pertinent details:

  • Huon said that the encounter turned social and that the alleged victim demanded $500 or she would "cry rape."
  • The alleged victim said that he fondled her and forced her to perform oral sex before she jumped out of a moving vehicle.
  • A bartender testified that, before the alleged assault, the two had asked him where to go to "have fun."
  • ATL's Elie Mystal (whose post, which has since been removed, is available via the Internet Archive) reported both sides' claims; he also interspersed his own opinion about Huon's lack of credibility. In addition, Mystal said that had the alleged victim Googled Huon, she would have found multiple prior allegations of rape. (He was mistaken; those accounts were actually about the same incident.)
  • A jury, one day later, deliberated only briefly before acquitting Huon of the sexual assault charges.

Defamatory Mistake

In an opinion dismissing some claims against Above The Law, and dismissing all claims against other media outlets, U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr. noted that false reporting falls outside of the fair report privilege.

"Read in context, this material suggests that Huon was charged with sexual assault and related offenses, and then subsequently charged with harassment and cyberstalking, all prior to the Jane Doe incident. It thus creates the impression that he was alleged to have committed sexual assault on two occasions," Judge Tharp wrote. "Since the section is erroneously presented as chronicling events unconnected to the Jane Doe incident, it is not a 'substantially correct account' of an official proceeding and the statements within it are not protected by the fair report privilege."

The news got worse for ATL: "Further, since the statements convey the impression that Huon was charged with sexual assault on a prior occasion and that he posed as a promotions supervisor on a prior occasion, they qualify as defamation per se and are not reasonably capable of an innocent construction."

Defamation per se? Ouch. Judge Tharpe also allowed claims of false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress for the same false statements. We'll see if Huon can prove the $50 million worth of damage, however.

Gawker Set Free

After dismissing the remainder of a potpourri of claims against ATL, Judge Tharp moved on to Gawker Media, a co-defendant which reported on the ATL lawsuit with an inflammatory headline on its Jezebel blog: "Acquitted Rapist Sues Blog For Calling Him Serial Rapist." (The title has since been changed.)

The artwork that accompanied the story also placed Huon's photo next to a few lines from the ATL story that included the words "rapist" and "rape." Huon argued that the combined effect was to suggest that he was actually a rapist, but Judge Tharp cited the "innocent construction" rule (if the article as a whole is capable of an innocent construction, there is no actionable defamation claim) to dismiss his claims against Gawker.

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