4:28pm PT by Ashley Cullins
CBS Beats Defamation Suit From Virginia Lt. Gov. Alleging "Political Hit Job"
CBS has defeated a $400 million lawsuit over Gayle King's interviews on CBS This Morning with two women who accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault.
Fairfax in September sued the network for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, claiming it didn't investigate the truth of the women's claims because it wanted to "visibly align itself on the side of perceived victims" in the wake of #MeToo.
Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson appeared in separate segments with King on April 1 and April 2, respectively. Fairfax insisted his 2000 encounter with Wilson and 2004 encounter with Tyson were consensual and that the claims were politically motivated.
Because Fairfax is a public figure, he had to show CBS acted with actual malice in order to succeed on his libel claim. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga on Tuesday found Fairfax wasn't able to do that.
Trenga found the content of Tyson's and Watson's statements, if false, could support a claim for defamation per se because they describe serious criminal conduct that would harm Fairfax's reputation — but that doesn't mean CBS is necessarily liable.
"Whether the broadcasts constitute actionable defamation against CBS, however, depends on whether a reasonable viewer would understand that CBS was presenting or implying either accusers’ statements as factually true," writes the judge. "For this reason, CBS contends that the challenged broadcasts are not actionable because, as a matter of law, it merely presented 'competing allegations of Tyson and Watson on the one hand, and of Fairfax’s version of those same events on the other,' and thus cannot convey any defamatory meaning on the part of CBS."
Trenga found that the shows stated Fairfax's assertion that he is innocent, including mentioning that he passed a polygraph test, and King pressed the women about their stories and motivations. "Overall, CBS’ statements and presentations, when viewed in context and in conjunction with other statements pertaining to Fairfax’s denials and other possible versions of what happened, are not defamatory per se and do not sufficiently imply that the accusations as true or accurate or that CBS endorsed the veracity of Fairfax’s accusers," writes the judge.
With regard to actual malice, Trenga found Fairfax failed to sufficiently allege that CBS either had reason to doubt the women's veracity or "deliberately shielded itself from the truth."
The judge also notes that CBS was "in constant contact" with Fairfax's spokesperson and was "highly responsive to her outreach," but Fairfax declined to respond to the interviews.
"[E]ven assuming some pre-existing ill will or animus on the part of CBS, Fairfax fails to allege facts that, when combined with any such presumed animus, would allow a plausible inference of malice," writes Trenga.
The judge denied CBS' motion for an award of attorney's fees and costs under Virginia's anti-SLAPP statute, finding that while "legally insufficient to state a claim, Fairfax’s allegations are not so 'groundless, frivolous, or unreasonable'" to warrant an award of fees — especially when the network is "not a financially-vulnerable victim."
Fairfax tells The Hollywood Reporter he'll be appealing the decision. “While we respect the court’s ruling, we disagree with it," he says. "We believe that we met the correct legal standard for a defamation claim and alleged plenty of specific facts in support of my claim. We look forward to appealing the ruling on the motion to dismiss and view this is as a significant step forward in establishing that Meredith Watson fabricated her claim of rape and sexual assault and that Vanessa Tyson fabricated her claim of sexual assault.”
Fairfax also emphasizes that Trenga found he credibly alleged his professional and personal reputation were seriously harmed by the broadcast and points to the court's reasoning for denying CBS a fees award. "The content of the two women’s broadcasted statements is clearly defamatory per se, and the accusations relate to 19 and 15 year-old events that, as far as CBS knew at the time, were uncorroborated and only recently leveled against Fairfax under circumstances that raised issues as to their timing," writes Trenga. "And despite Fairfax’s detailed denials, which CBS reported on air, CBS’ commentary could be viewed by a reasonable listener as placing his accusers’ statements in a sympathetic light that gave them some degree of legitimacy.”
Read the full opinion below.
Feb.11, 5:40 p.m. Updated with a statement from Lt. Gov. Fairfax.