Judge: ABC's '20/20,' Chris Cuomo Likely to Lose Libel Lawsuit (Exclusive)

Chris Cuomo NY Comedy Festival - P 2013
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Chris Cuomo NY Comedy Festival - P 2013

ABC's ex-correspondent Chris Cuomo, the brother of New York's governor who now works for CNN, could cost his former network in a libel lawsuit over a 2011 20/20 report on the dangers of online dating.

On Tuesday, a California judge rejected a motion by the network to dismiss a libel claim brought by David Williams, who was presented on the newsmagazine as a dangerous Internet predator who lured a "multitude" of women into romantic relationships to "prey" on them financially. Read the full ruling here.

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In dismissing ABC's motion to strike the claims based on its First Amendment speech rights, Judge Franz Miller determined that Williams was likely to win the case and ruled that the plaintiff has adequately demonstrated that ABC was negligent in failing to use reasonable care to determine the truth or falsity of statements before the episode in question aired. The case now proceeds toward trial or an appeal by ABC.

An ABC spokesperson tells The Hollywood Reporter, "We respectfully disagree with the ruling and are exploring our legal options going forward.”

According to the lawsuit (read it here), which was filed in July in California's Orange County Superior Court, Williams met a woman named Kelley Cahill online in early 2005, and they had a romantic relationship. The affair ended May 2006 after Williams allegedly found Cahill in bed with another man but not before they purchased a property together in Cahill's name.

In January 2010, Williams was contacted by the Dr. Phil show and confronted with Cahill's accusation that he defrauded her out of $1.5 million. Williams denied the charge and told the producer she should check Cahill's bankruptcy filing, the foreclosure proceedings on the house and financial records like their joint checking account. Dr. Phil never broadcast Cahill's allegations.

The lawsuit says Cahill then contacted other TV shows about her story and found interest from 20/20 and Cuomo.

Before the show aired, the lawsuit alleges that Cuomo talked with Williams, who repeated what he had told the Dr. Phil producer. Five months after their initial conversation, Cuomo contacted Williams again and stated that ABC was going to air Cahill's story. Williams was asked whether he wanted to go on the record with a response, and after Williams said he needed to gather advice, Cuomo allegedly said there was no time. Williams then threatened to pursue legal remedies.

The segment entitled "Blinded by Love: Kelley Cahill's Ordeal" aired June 24, 2011, and Williams then sued ABC, Cuomo, 20/20 editor Jack Pyle and Cahill.

The plaintiff alleged several defamatory statements: that the news program stated or implied that Williams told Cahill he was divorced when in fact he says she was told that he was separated but still married; that the news program stated or implied that during the relationship, Williams profited from gifts from Cahill (he says that he paid for more gifts than she did); and that the news program stated or implied she suffered from financial "ruin." Williams says this was caused by "Cahill's propensity to live beyond her means, not by Williams."

All told, there were 20 alleged defamatory statements outlined in the lawsuit.

In bringing a motion based on California's anti-SLAPP statute, ABC had to demonstrate that its published statements arose from protected activity like free speech. It did. Thus, the burden shifted to Williams to demonstrate that he had a probability of prevailing on his claims.

On an initial matter, Miller delivered two important determinations that shaped the ultimate decision to deny ABC's attempt to kill the lawsuit.

The judge ruled that California rather than Colorado law should apply. Williams currently resides in Colorado, but the action was brought in California by someone originally living in California against another California resident. Because the judge found that California's interests were stronger, that meant Williams would only have to show that ABC "acted negligently" instead of with "actual malice" -- an important distinction that favors the plaintiff.

Williams also got to escape the higher malice burden because the judge determined that he wasn't a "limited-purpose public figure" just because he described himself as divorced on several public dating sites and took steps to influence his portrayal in the news media for the Dr. Phil program. "Plaintiff was a private figure," the judge concluded in a tentative ruling that has now been adopted as final. Read in full here.

On the merits of Williams' claims, Miller writes:

"From the pertinent portions of 20/20 broadcast, a reasonable fact finder could conclude that it implies two provably false assertions of fact: (1) that plaintiff misled Cahill into thinking that he was divorced during their tenure of their relationship, or at least until his son wrote to Cahill and informed her that his father 'was still very married, never divorced, never separated'; and (2) that plaintiff induced Cahill into a romantic relationship to prey on her financially, which caused her to suffer financial ruin."

ABC attempted various arguments, including that whatever was implied was substantially true and that certain statements reflected the “subjective, rhetorically hyperbolic opinion of an ex-lover.”

But the judge not only determined that the critical question is whether a reasonable fact finder could conclude that statements made implied a provable assertion of fact but that Williams "met his burden of demonstrating that these implications were false" and that Williams "demonstrated injury to his reputation."

Miller accepted Williams' word that the ABC program caused serious problems for the plaintiff's job as vp sales and marketing for KidsEmbrace and that Williams suffered severe emotional distress and migraines as a result of the broadcast. The judge also weighed evidence that ABC and Cuomo breached journalism ethics by not examining Cahill's story better, not contacting Williams' wife, only contacting Williams twice and giving him a "take-it-or-leave-it opportunity to discuss the matter on the record."

The judge says, "Plaintiff has adequately demonstrated that ABC failed to use reasonable care in determining the truth or falsity of the statements before publishing them."

ABC was successful in convincing the judge to strike a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress but otherwise was denied its attempt to escape the libel claim on the initial broadcast. The defamation claim against Cahill also survived.

The ruling seems likely to be appealed unless there's a settlement struck and there eventually could be a jury trial.

Williams is represented by Los Angeles attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs.

Cuomo made his debut on CNN in February, filling in as the host of Piers Morgan Tonight. He has been reported to be on his way toward co-hosting a morning show for the network.

Matthew Belloni contributed to this report. 

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner