Monday, December 5, 2011

1st Circuit Reinstates Libel Suit But Raises Plaintiffs' Burden of Proof

English: Studio publicity portrait of the Amer...Image via WikipediaBrothers who believe they were libeled by a 2007 documentary may pursue their defamation action, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled last week, but will have to satisfy the elevated burden of proof of actual malice to prevail, according to The Docket, a blog produced by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly newspaper.

The case, Felipe Vicini Lluberes & Juan Vicini Lluberes v. Uncommon Productions LLC (Case No. 10-2082), involves The Price of Sugar, a documentary narrated by the late actor/activist Paul Newman, about the plaintiffs, Dominican sugarcane plantation tycoons, who allegedly exploit Haitian immigrants who harvest the sugarcane, and the attempts by a Spanish priest to intercede on the Haitians' behalf.

U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Judge Douglas P. Woodlock tossed the plaintiffs suit, but the three-judge First Circuit panel reinstated the case, finding that information provided by the filmmakers to a fact-checker may yield discoverable evidence. The appellate court, however, also concluded the plaintiffs were limited public figures, which means that to sustain their defamation claim, they will have to prove the defendants knew their film contained false statements about the plaintiffs or exhibited reckless disregard about the truth or falsity of the purported defamatory content.

According to the First Circuit, the Lluberes brothers made public appearances on CNN and pored millions of dollars into a public relations campaign to stifle critics and win public support, and so, should have to meet the higher burden of proof against the defendants. 

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