HBO Beats Defamation Lawsuit at Trial

HBO Big Risks News - H 2015
Courtesy of HBO

HBO Big Risks News - H 2015

On Friday, HBO finally beat a defamation lawsuit over a Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel report on child labor in India.

The lawsuit was brought in 2009 by Mitre Sports International, which claimed that its reputation as a leading advocate against child labor was damaged in a report that featured children stitching Mitre soccer balls. The trial lasted a month, but it took the jury less than six hours to clear HBO of wrongdoing. The jury decided that HBO wasn't grossly irresponsible in its report.

HBO says in a statement, "We are delighted with the jury’s decision, which confirms what we have said since the beginning of this legal proceeding in the fall of 2008: this case was without merit and the Real Sports reporting was unimpeachable. We couldn’t be prouder of the Real Sports franchise and the award-winning work done over the past 20 years. We are grateful to the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence.”

Mitre, one of the world's biggest soccer ball brands, alleged that many scenes were fabricated, that HBO had paid children to pretend they were stitching, that producers deceptively edited interviews with leading experts, that producers were attempting to mimic a 60 Minutes report about child bondage in India, and more. At trial, Mitre showed the jurors highly emotional images of child abuse and went so far as accusing HBO employees of perjury.

In response, HBO lead attorney Dane Butswinkas defended the honor of Bryant Gumbel, correspondent Bernard Goldberg, "Children of Industry" producer Joe Perskie, associate producer Zehra Mamdani and the many Indian staffers who worked on the piece. He attacked Mitre and the Sports Good Foundation of India as failing to truly monitor child labor in the supply chain and intimidating witnesses to cover up. The attorney called each of them journalists of high caliber with distinguished careers.

"What is this about?" Butswinkas asked in closing arguments on Thursday. "An effort [by Mitre] to shield themselves from negative publicity. They are worried about having light shined on the topic."

HBO's work defending the case was made very tough by a judge who was quite generous to Mitre, ruling the plaintiff to not be a "public figure," meaning it didn't need to show malice. (About two dozen media organizations then filed an amicus brief bemoaning the decision.) Judge George B. Daniels also rejected HBO's summary judgment demands, allowed Mitre to pursue defamation on the segment as a whole rather than particular statements within the report, and even permitted Mitre to pursue punitive damages. The result was the first defamation trial against a national TV broadcaster in many years.

In closing arguments, Mitre attorney Lloyd Constantine accused HBO of abusing children and shaming his client, and citing the fact that HBO parent Time Warner had made more than $5 billion last year, he said to the jury, "I ask you to award punitive damages to stop HBO from slandering those of good name."

Eleven jurors — one dropped out during the lengthy trial — instead returned back with a verdict in HBO's favor. They may have concluded the report was substantially true, as HBO presented evidence that child labor was a real problem. They could have concluded that the report's statements didn't specifically target Mitre, as HBO argued that the most controversial segment didn't even mention the company's name. Or maybe the jury just decided that a network that spent two years doing research — and even stripped a portion after Mitre objected before airing — simply wasn't grossly irresponsible. The jury deliberations happened privately so the reasoning behind the verdict isn't immediately clear.

A Mitre spokesperson responds to the verdict by saying, "We are disappointed with the jury’s verdict. But, we are pleased we were able to tell our side of the story to the general public. For us, this case has not been about winning or losing, it has always been about setting the record straight even if we were unable to overcome the high burden of proof under U.S. law."

HBO was successfully defended in the long-running case by the firm of Williams & Connolly.