Knight-Ridder Settles Suit

By Giobbe, Dorothy | Editor & Publisher, May 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Knight-Ridder Settles Suit


Giobbe, Dorothy, Editor & Publisher


A libel lawsuit involving a $24 million judgment against the Philadelphis Inquirer, has been settled.

The case was originally filed against the newspaper in 1973 by Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague.

Lawyers for the Inquirer and Sprague declined to provide details of the settlement, citing a confidentiality agreement.

"I'm pleased that finally, nearly 23 years to the after I filed my suit we've been able to settle this matter," Sprague said in a statement. "From the beginning, I felt very strongly about my case, and I feel no differently today, but it's time for all of us to get on with our fives."

Inquirer publisher Robert J. Hall also issued a statement in which he said, "We, too, are pleased about the resolution of this case .... Closing the book now on more proceedings seem like a sensible thing to do. It's been a long time since the 1970s and it's time to move on."

The case, which has made its way through the Pennsylvania appellate courts, involves a $24 million libel judgment against the newspaper.

Sprague filed suit after the Inquirer published a series which raised questions about the former prosecutor's conduct in a 1963 murder investigation involving the son of a former state police commissioner.

In 1983, a Common Pleas Court jury sided with Sprague and awarded him $4.5 million in damage but the Inquirer was granted a new trial by Pennsylvania appellate courts.

The decision to grant the newspaper a new came partly because reporters were prohibited from invoking the state's shield law during the original trial.

Lawyers for the Inquirer chose not to present certain evidence involving confidential sources, rather than divulge those sources. Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Charles A. Lord, who presided at the original trial, insisted on disclosure of the sources, but reporters continued to invoke the shield law.

The judge ruled that the shield law did not apply and excluded all testimony about the information gleaned from unnamed sources.

In a 1985 interview with E&P, Sprague's attorney, James E. Beasley, said that libel suits are "the healthiest thing newspapers can expect to get. label suits make an editor think twice before he defames someone. They're a search for truth that serves society."

At the second trial in 1990, a jury again found for Sprague, and awarded him $34 million in compensatory and punitive damages. At the time, the award was the largest judgment ever rendered in a libel lawsuit in the United States.

The award later was reduced to $24 million by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, but last january, the state Supreme Court refused to review the case, leaving the newspaper no option other than the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court had refused to hear the case, the Inquirer would have had to begin payment to Sprague on the $24 million damage award.

Philadelphia Newspapers inc. said the settlement would have no impact on the company's earnings.

Paper, Reporter

Come To Terms

The Burlington (VT.) Free Press has reached Tan out-of-court settlement with a former employee, a few days before the case was scheduled to go to a jury.

Lawyers for the Free Press and its parent Gannett Co., said details of the settlement could not be disclosed because of a confidentiality agreement between the parties.

"I feel the principle I stood up for, which was you can't fire a journalist for getting the story right, needed to be made," Paul Teetor, a former reporter for the Free Press, told the Associated Press after the settlement was announced. …

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