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HOUSTON-Dow Jones & Co. is asking a federal judge in Houston to set aside a $222.7 million libel award stemming from a 1993 story in The Wall Street Journal.
The March 20 Houston federal court jury verdict against Dow Jones, the Journal's parent company, is four times the previous record libel award. The award included $200 million in punitive damages on top of $22.7 million in actual damages.
The plaintiffs in the case, the now-defunct MMAR Group Inc., a Houston-based investment firm, claimed the 1993 article contained falsehoods and contributed to the firm's going out of business.
New York-based Dow Jones said that for now, an article in Friday's Journal stood as the company's statement on the verdict. The article includes a statement from Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger that in his view the newspaper was "chronicling the difficulties of this company; we did not cause them." Dow Jones indicated it will appeal if the verdict is not set aside. Mr. Steiger said, "We are optimistic, based on applicable law, that it will not stand." The company said it has $45 million in libel coverage.
While this verdict could be reduced, its impact on the media liability insurance market would come as part of a trend toward larger and more frequent libel verdicts, said Chad Milton, senior vp at Media/Professional Insurance in Kansas City, Mo. "It seems to me that this would have the effect of hardening the media liability market," he said. "A big verdict used to be a million or two or three. Now the big verdicts are bigger, they're coming more often, and the prospects on appeal are not as bright as they were in the past."
He said part of Dow Jones' coverage is with Media/Professional.
Other recent awards against the media include a January verdict of $5.5 million in punitive damages and $1,400 in compensatory damages levied in December against American Broadcasting Cos. Inc. related to a 1992 episode of "PrimeTime Live" about the Food Lion Inc. supermarket chain. The verdict was based not on libel but on fraud allegedly committed by ABC News employees in obtaining jobs at the Salisbury, N.C.-based chain. ABC is appealing those awards.
Also in December, a Miami jury awarded $8.75 million in damages to a bank executive in a libel lawsuit against the news organization.