Court Puts King on the Canvas in Defamation Lawsuit

Sep 12, 2008

A Florida state court has sided with the ESPN in a case in which it was sued by boxing promoter Don King and his production company for defamation and false light invasion of privacy associated with a documentary that was produced and aired by the sports network.
In ruling for the defendants, the court found that King failed to prove that the defendant “either had knowledge of the falsity or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the
The impetus for the litigation was statements made during an ESPN Sports century Classic program, which was televised on May 14, 2004. The 22-minute program aired 12 times between May 14 and Oct. 14 of the same year. Five statements made in the program were at issue.
The court noted that three of the five statements were spoken by Don Elbaum, a boxing promoter, who has known King for over 30 years. Additionally, Elbaum is the source of a fourth statement, which was spoken by the host of the program, Chris Fowler. The fifth statement was spoken by Jack Newfield, a writer who had covered King for several years, and whose works on King included numerous newspaper articles, a 1995 book titled Only in America, and a documentary on PBS.
The following five statements frame the issues in this case, according to the court:
1. Elbaum indicated that King organized a benefit exhibition for Forest City
Hospital. Apparently, the hospital only received $1,500 out of the $85,000 in ticket sales.
2. Elbaum described a private conversation he had with Meldrick Taylor in which they discussed Taylor being owed “$1,300,000 for the [Chavez] fight and King
only giving Meldrick a check for $300,000.”
3. Elbaum asserted that Taylor believed King would have him killed.
4. Elbaum stated that King convinced doctors to invest $250,000 in a movie about
his life that was never made.
5. Newfield described an encounter he had with King at a press conference where Newfield alleges that King threatened to kill him.
The court further noted that the case involves public figure plaintiffs, triggering a two prong test for defamation. New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-280 (1964). The plaintiffs are required to prove (a) the falsity of the published statements; and (b) that the defendant published the statements with actual malice. Id.
Regarding the first statement, the court dispatched with the plaintiffs’ argument that the statement was not precise, citing case law that the statement “does not have to be perfectly accurate if the ‘gist’ of the statement is true.”
Turning to the second, the court noted that King and company could not disprove that a conversation occurred, or show how much Taylor was supposed to receive.
On the third statement, the court found that plaintiffs could not show actual malice. “Actual malice requires more than a departure from reasonable standards of journalism; there must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. St. Amant v.
Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968).”
In similar fashion, the court disbanded with the plaintiffs’ arguments on statements four and five.
The court went on to note that “a failure to investigate sufficiently does not constitute actual malice.” Along those lines, the court added that ESPN was not “reasonably required to continue its investigation until it found somebody who would defend plaintiffs. See Levan v. Capital Cities/ABC Inc., 190 F.3d 1230, 1243 (1lth Cir. 1999).”
Among the remaining arguments the court addressed was whether the ESPN producer harbored ill will toward King. While agreeing that “the program might not constitute the best example of objective journalism, ESPN’s conduct does not meet the standard of actual malice. The producers did not publish the statements with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were false.”
Don King Productions and Don King v. The Walt Disney Company et al.; Cir Ct., 17th Jud. Cir. (Broward Co., Fla.); Case No: 05-0005224(03); 7/27/08


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