Monday, December 12, 2011

Pa. Court Rules The Citizen's Voice Did Not Libel Businessman

South Main Street, from Public Square, Wilkes-...Image via WikipediaIt was nearly a decade in the making, but the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.)-based The Citizen's Voice has been exonerated in a defamation case brought by a businessman who alleged the daily linked him to a reputed Mob boss.

According to accounts by Associated Press and the blog, the Times-Shamrock Communications-owned Citizen's Voice did not defame Thomas Joseph, Sr., his son or his direct mail and telemarketing firms, wrote Luzerne County Judge Joseph Van Jura in a 37-page opinion. The Citizen's Voice published 10 stories from June 1, 2001, to October 10, 2001, concerning a money-laundering probe allegedly involving the plaintiff and Acumark, Inc., his direct marketing firm, which included raids by armed federal agents of Joseph's home and  company.

The libel complaint alleged the defendant daily, through largely anonymous-source based stories, connected the plaintiff to reputed mobster William D'Elia, a childhood pal of Joseph's. Joseph was never charged with any crime. He sued the paper and former reporter Edward Lewis for defamation, contending he lost friends and his companies sustained financial harm because of the articles. Following a bench trial in 2006 before Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, the Citizen's Voice was socked with a $3.5 million judgment.

On Nov. 4, 2009, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed the verdict and ordered a re-trial based on concerns about the impartiality of Judge Ciavarella and Judge Michael T. Conahan, who assigned the Joseph case to Judge Ciavarella. Conahan and D'Elia purportedly had a relationship, which prompted the Pennsylvania High Court not only to toss the libel judgment against the daily, but also to overturn thousands of juvenile justice convictions imposed by Judge Ciavarella over a five-year period.

In the re-trial, Judge Van Jura concluded the reputations of Thomas Sr. & Jr. and their companies were not impugned by the Citizen's Voice series. Judge Van Jura faulted the plaintiffs for not showing "special harm" from the publication of the articles, such as lost business contracts or being shunned by social contacts.  Although the daily dodged a punitive damages award, the court did not allow the Citizen's Voice to recover the nearly $1 million in attorneys' fees doled out over the past decade and took the newspaper to task for sloppy reporting and unsubstantiated claims.

This story is just crying out for a cable movie version.
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