© 2014 The Texas Lawbook.
By Kerry Curry — (Jan. 9) — Jackson Walker won the latest round in a long-running and hard-fought media law case that pits two prominent Texas law firms in a pro bono case where attorney time on each side has reached or surpassed the $1 million mark.
The win was an appellate victory after a reconsideration request.
The case involves a libel claim against Carter Publications, doing business as the West Fort Bend Star, and a former reporter there, LeaAnne Klentzman, who wrote an article that suggested questionable actions were taken by then-Fort Bend County Chief Deputy Craig Brady related to a son’s run-ins with law enforcement, including meeting with officers involved in issuing his son a minor-in-possession ticket.
Brady’s son, Wade Brady, sued the newspaper and the reporter, alleging he was defamed in the article, which failed to report that he was acquitted of the MIP charge.
The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas reversed the trial court’s judgment awarding damages on a jury verdict to Wade Brady and remanded the case for a new trial. The case originally went to trial in 2011. A jury awarded Wade Brady $50,000 in actual damages and more than $1 million in punitive damages. The trial court later reduced the punitive award against The Star to $200,000 but retained a $30,000 punitive award against the reporter.
Jackson Walker partner John Edwards represented the reporter and The Star as lead counsel in the appeal, with assistance from partner Amanda Bush and associate Luke Gilman. JW has represented the defendants pro bono since the case’s 2003 inception.
The appellate court in its opinion said the article reported on a matter of public concern involving law enforcement. Jackson Walker had moved for a directed verdict at the end of the trial stage, arguing, among other things, that the article addressed a matter of public concern, but the motion was denied. It also argued that the trial court submitted an incorrect jury charge that allowed the jury to award punitive damages without requiring Wade Brady to prove actual malice.
“When people speak on matters of public concern involving law enforcement, public officials and how our government operates, it is important that speech be robust, and wide open and not easily shut down,” Edwards said. “This opinion imposes stricter requirements on people who want to punish speech about matters of public concern, and that’s a good thing.”
John Zavitsanos was the lead attorney representing appellee Wade Brady and was assisted by Todd Mensing of the firm Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi, and Mensing.
“I cannot remember the last time the court of appeals has not ruled in favor of a newspaper based on some variation of the truth doctrine,” Zavitsanos said. “The important thing about this decision is it does not suggest in the least bit that the article was accurate, that it was truthful or that it falls under the substantial truth doctrine. So, we were pleased about that.”
Zavitsanos said he’s also pleased that the appellate court found sufficient evidence for the case to go forward based on the actual malice standard and that it did not overrule the jury’s findings that the article created a false and defamatory impression of Wade Brady.
“I have zero doubt — zero doubt — that if this case goes to trial again, we will do as well or better,” he said.
Zavitsanos said the Brady family is a close friend of the firm, and the firm felt the newspaper had unfairly gone after the children of Craig Brady. Even though the firm typically handles very large complex commercial matters, it opted to take the case pro bono. Besides attorney time, the firm racked up about $150,000 in expenses.
“We felt this rag that dares to call itself a newspaper had a vendetta for this family for years and years because the reporter lost the election for sheriff and the father of this boy was a strident supporter of her opponent,” he said. “That is really what this was about.”
The reporter and publisher came to JW seeking help after learning the prominent firm of Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi, and Mensing would be representing Wade Brady.
“They were concerned about being able to afford a complete defense,” Edwards said. “Our firm has a pretty extensive media practice group so we have a lot of experience in libel cases against the media, and we felt this was an important case and one that needed a good defense so we agreed to do it on a pro bono basis,” he said.
Bev Carter, who was the publisher of the paper at the time the article was published, died in 2013, and Zavitsanos said her death will play into the decision on whether to seek a new trial. Although her past testimony could be used in a new trial, she testified live and the jurors significantly disliked her, a fact that he thinks helped Wade Brady’s case.
For his part, Edwards said he hopes this might be the end of the epic battle. A dozen years have passed since the original story was published.
“It’s been a long road for our clients,” Edwards said. “They’ve had to live through this for a long time, and I think they’ve been vindicated on what the law is and how it should protect the media when speaking on matters of public concern.”
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