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April 20, 2023updated 07 Nov 2023 5:41am

Fox News v Dominion and the biggest libel payouts in history

Press Gazette looks at other large UK and US libel payouts in recent decades.

By Bron Maher

Fox News publisher Fox Corporation has agreed to make what is likely the largest-ever out-of-court settlement over a libel case.

The company will pay election technology business Dominion Voting Systems $787.5m (£630m), averting at the last minute a landmark trial that may have seen proprietor Rupert Murdoch take the witness stand.

Although it is just under half of the original $1.6bn damages claimed by Dominion, the settlement is well beyond the size of most libel payouts.

The only bigger libel payout is Alex Jones to the Sandy Hook families, but Jones’ lawyer seeks to have the $1.4bn court-mandated award revised down.

Here Press Gazette’s lists the biggest US and UK libel payouts we can track down.

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If you know of a bigger settlement or damages award in a libel case to do with the media, let us know at bron.maher@pressgazette.co.uk.

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[Read more: How hacking scandal cost Murdoch’s UK tabloid business £1bn]

1. Alex Jones v Sandy Hook families, 2022: $1.438bn awards (possibly under appeal) – USA

Since claiming in 2012 that the killings of 20 children and seven adults at Sandy Hook were a hoax, Infowars founder Alex Jones has been subject to a host of defamation proceedings.

Although some are ongoing, in October last year a Connecticut jury decided Jones and Infowars must pay $965m in compensatory damages to more than a dozen relatives of Sandy Hook victims. The next month a judge added $473m in punitive damages atop that, for a total of $1.438bn.

Reuters has reported that Jones’ lawyer has applied for the damages to be reduced and for a new trial prompted by “unfair pretrial rulings”.

2. Dominion Voting Systems v Fox Corporation, 2023: $787.5m settlement – USA

[Read more: Fox agrees $787.5m last-minute settlement in Dominion libel case]

3. ABC News v Beef Products, Inc, 2017: $177m settlement – USA

For a time, “pink slime” – the processed trimmings added into ground beef – were a major media story. Numerous outlets covered the ubiquitous additive and fears over its health effects.

One of those outlets was ABC News – which in 2017 settled a libel suit brought by South Dakota’s Beef Products, Inc, a major producer of the meat byproduct. The company had sought $1.9bn in damages from the Disney–owned broadcaster over ABC News reports it said had mischaracterised the safety of the slime. Fallout from the controversy over the product had led Beef Products to lay off some 700 workers and close three of its facilities.

ABC News did not disclose the size of its settlement, but a Disney earnings report for the quarter disclosed the company had paid $177m “in connection with the settlement of litigation”.

An attorney for Beef Products told CNN Business that, by his team’s reckoning, it was at the time the largest figure ever paid out in a US defamation case.

4. WFAA-TV v Vic Feazell, 1991: $58m settlement – USA

In 1991, Dallas television station WFAA settled a libel suit brought by former Central Texas district attorney Vic Feazell over a series broadcast in 1985.

Neither side disclosed the size of the settlement, but a jury had already awarded $58m to Feazell, subject to an appeal by the television station.

The series “accused Feazell of accepting bribes in exchange for dismissing drunken driving cases” according to the Associated Press, which described the settlement as a record.

5. The Wall Street Journal v Money Management Analytic Research Group Inc, 1997: $22.7m award – USA

Houston-based brokerage firm Money Management Analytic Research Group Inc (MMAR) sued Dow Jones in 1993 over a Wall Street Journal article reporting on various alleged business malpractices. According to The New York Times, the Journal had reported “the group was reckless in dealing with its clients, that it had contributed to $50 million in losses by a Louisiana state pension plan and that it was under investigation by regulatory agencies”.

A jury found five of eight complained-about statements were defamatory and awarded $22.7m in actual damages – as well as a further $200m in punitive damages. A judge did not find that reasonable, however, and threw out the jury’s $200m.

6. Philadelphia Inquirer v Richard Sprague, 1996: $24m settlement – USA

The second case on this list of a local publisher paying out to an aggrieved regional lawyer, in 1996 the Philadelphia Inquirer agreed to settle a libel suit brought by criminal attorney Richard Sprague over a series of articles published in 1973.

According to UPI, the articles “suggested that Sprague had quashed a 1963 murder investigation as a favour for a friend” while he had been a homicide prosecutor in Philadelphia.

A jury initially awarded Sprague $34m before the Superior Court lowered it to $24m. The Inquirer’s publisher suggested the paper was prepared to take the case to the Supreme Court – but, “aware that the court takes very few cases”, agreed to settle for an undisclosed sum.

7. Depp v Heard, 2022: Depp awarded $15m, Heard awarded $2m – USA

The headline-dominating legal battle between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp produced libel awards for both litigants, both relating to statements published in newspapers.

Depp sued Heard over an op-ed published in her name in the Washington Post (but actually ghostwritten by the American Civil Liberties Union) in which she said she had survived domestic violence, albeit without identifying the perpetrator. The jury, which was not sequestered, found Heard’s claims of abuse were false and made with actual malice, and awarded Depp $10m in compensation and $5m in punitive damages.

Heard meanwhile sued Depp over statements made by his attorney to the Daily Mail suggesting that Heard and her friends had staged evidence of a domestic altercation with Depp. She was awarded $2m in compensatory damages and none in punitive ones.

8. Lord Aldington v Count Tolstoy, 1989: £1.5m award (never paid) – UK

In what is often described as the largest libel award in British legal history, in 1989 former Conservative Party vice-chairman Lord Aldington won his suit against historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy over a pamphlet Tolstoy wrote implicating the peer in a war crime.

The pamphlet, drawn from Tolstoy’s book “The Minister and the Massacres”, concerned the repatriation of collaborationist Yugoslav citizens and Cossacks to the Tito regime at the end of World War Two. Tolstoy said the refoulement led to the deaths of 70,000 prisoners of war and attributed responsibility for the handovers to Harold Macmillan and Aldington, who at the time was an officer in the British Army.

The courts disagreed with Tolstoy’s account and awarded Aldington £1.5m, a sum worth approximately £3.75m in 2023. However Tolstoy, a distant relative of War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy, had himself declared bankrupt and didn’t pay Aldington a penny of the award – until two days after the politician’s death in 2000, at which point he paid £57,000 toward Aldington’s estate.

In 1995 the European Court of Human Rights said the size of the damages “amounted to a breach of Count Tolstoy’s right to freedom of expression”, according to The Telegraph. The paper added that by then, “the law had been amended so that juries would be given some guidance on the size of the sums they might realistically award”. The Defamation Act 2013 has since removed the presumption of jury trial in defamation cases altogether.

9. Walkers v Yachting World, 1994: £1.485m award, reduced to ~£500,000 settlement – UK

The second largest British libel award was also never paid in full. John and Jean Walker, as well as their business, Walker Wingsail Systems, sued Reed-Elsevier’s Yachting World in 1994 over a critical review the magazine had run the year before.

According to The Independent, Mr Walker “wept as he recalled his ‘disgust, rage and horror’ on reading the magazine’s review” of his “trimaran”, or triple-hulled, boat design. Walker Wingsail System had not received any boat orders in its decade operating prior to the libel trial, but picked up five in the year subsequent, the newspaper reported.

A jury decided Yachting World’s editorial had not been fair or accurate and awarded Mr Walker £450,000, Mrs Walker £35,000 and the company £1m. Together, the sums would today be worth approximately £2.9m. However the magazine appealed, during which delay the yacht maker came close to bankruptcy. In the end the magazine agreed to pay “less than a third” of the original amount, as well as Walker Wingsail System’s approximately £500,000 legal costs.

10. Financial Times v Collins Stewart, 2006: £300,000 damages and £4.2m costs settlement – UK

Stockbroker Collins Stewart sought damages of £37m from the Financial Times over articles published in 2003 that carried accusations of wrongdoing from a former employee. An initial claim for £250m was thrown out, as well as a second part of the claim for aggravated damages.

Described by media lawyers at the time as a “pragmatic” settlement for the FT – which did not admit wrongdoing – the paper settled the case shortly before the trial was due to begin. The paper paid £300,000 in damages as well as both sides’ legal costs, which were expected to amount to £4.2m.

11. San Francisco Examiner v Synanon, 1976: $600,000 settlement – USA

The San Francisco Examiner’s $600,000, 1976 payout to rehabilitation facility Synanon was described in The New York Times at the time as “the largest amount ever paid to end an action for libel”. In 2023 dollars that sum would be worth approximately $3m.

The Examiner had reported in 1972 that Synanon no longer gave attention to rehabilitating addicts and that it was under investigation by the tax authorities for misuse of its tax-exempt status.

The paper, then owned by Hearst, published a four-paragraph front-page apology. Synanon’s founder Chuck Dederich said the Examiner had “almost destroyed… the enviable reputation of trustworthiness, reliability and honesty that I had… laboured to establish”.

Synanon is now remembered as a cult and is the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary.

12. Elton John v The Sun, 1989: £1m settlement – UK

Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie claims to have only once checked the source of a story while editing the paper – and it was for that story that The Sun would have to hand over £1m.

The 1989 story alleged that Elton John “had a taste for young rent boys”, according to The Independent. John sued, but the case did not reach court, with Murdoch reportedly ordering a retraction before things got that far. The Independent’s 1993 story recalling the episode described the settlement as “the biggest pay-out in newspaper libel history”.

“So much for checking a story. I never did it again,” MacKenzie wrote in the Evening Standard in 2011.

13. Virgin Atlantic v British Airways, 1993: £610,000 settlement – UK

In the 90s a rivalry between the newly-privatised British Airways and Richard Branson’s nascent Virgin Atlantic descended into “dirty tricks”, with BA poaching passengers from Virgin and planting hostile stories about its competitor in the press.

British Airways dismissed claims it was engaging in any skullduggery. But after an article in BA’s staff newspaper suggested Virgin had invented such claims altogether, Branson sued. British Airways countersued before admitting in the High Court to “disreputable business practices” and planting “hostile and discreditable” stories about Virgin.

BA paid Branson £500,000 and Virgin £110,000 in settlement. Branson then lodged a $1bn suit for compensation in New York, according to The Guardian, but the claim was thrown out in 1999.

14. BBC v Oryx, 2002: £500,000 damages and £300,000 costs settlement – UK

In late 2001 the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News described Kamal Khalfan, the director of Omani diamond mining business Oryx, as a “convicted terrorist” and “front man for Bin Laden”. He was neither – according to The Guardian the BBC had mixed up two similar names.

The corporation quickly apologised and reached a £100,000 settlement with Khalfan himself within months, but it took a year to reach a settlement with Oryx. Oryx targeted up to £12m but ultimately won a £500,000 settlement, plus £300,000 toward its costs.

The BBC subsequently sent all its news and current affairs staff on a legal refresher.

15. Kate and Gerry McCann v Express Newspapers, 2008: £550,000 settlement – UK

In 2008 Kate and Gerry McCann, parents to missing Madeleine, agreed a settlement of £550,000 from Express Newspapers (comprising the Daily Express, Daily Star and their Sunday sister papers). According to the McCanns’ lawyers the papers had published more than 100 false stories suggesting, among other things, that they had conspired to sell their daughter and cover it up and that they went to “wife-swapping orgies”.

16. Robert Murat v most of Fleet Street, 2008: £600,000 settlement across three claimants – UK

In the second McCann-related libel case on this list, in July 2008 Portugal-based property consultant Robert Murat, his friend Michaela Walczuch and IT consultant Sergey Malinka brought proceedings against Mail publisher Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, Mirror publisher MGN Limited and Sun publisher News Group Newspapers over “nearly 100 ‘seriously defamatory’ articles” suggesting the group had been involved in the child’s disappearance.

Louis Charalambous, who led Murat’s legal team at Simons Muirhead & Burton, said the defendants had accepted in court “that none of the claimants has any paedophile tendencies or connection with paedophiles” and that “Mr Murat’s actions after the abduction were entirely proper and were motivated by a desire to help find Madeleine McCann”.

This article was updated after publication to add in the Aldington v Tolstoy and Walkers v Yachting World cases. Many thanks to Jonathan Coad for the pointer.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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