Appeal Reverses $18 Million Verdict Against Fla. Newspaper

October 22, 2006

An appeals court reversed a $18.28 million jury verdict against the Pensacola News Journal for a 1998 story a businessman claimed cast him in a “false light.”

The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday that Joe Anderson Jr.’s case should have been dismissed because he mischaracterized his lawsuit as a false-light claim in an attempt to sidestep a two-year statute of limitations that applies in libel cases.

“We’re delighted with the decision. It reinforces certainly the First Amendment in a big way in Florida,” newspaper attorney Dennis Larry said Saturday. “It was the reversal of the biggest libel verdict against a newspaper in Florida and for that I’m very glad.”

The claim stems from a newspaper article that described the death of Anderson’s wife. He said the newspaper’s use of the term “shot and killed” falsely implied he had murdered his wife, although two sentences later the article noted authorities determined it had been a hunting accident.

The News Journal referred to the shooting, which occurred several years earlier, in a series on Anderson and his road paving company Anderson Columbia published in 1998 and 1999.

Anderson initially filed a libel suit, claiming a number of inaccurate statements in the series.

He ultimately agreed the article was factual, but his attorney, Bruce Rogow, argued in an amended lawsuit that the impression left by the article was false even if its content was true.

Rogow did not return telephone messages left Saturday.

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