On Friday, a Delaware federal judge granted Fox News Channel’s motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by high-profile attorney and media fixture Michael Avenatti.
In his ruling, Judge Stephanos Bibas from Delaware’s Third Circuit wrote that media outlets can’t be held liable for minor mistakes they make while reporting on public figures.
Avenatti certainly falls into the “public figure” category.
Much of Fox News’ coverage of Avenatti’s arrest related to domestic violence was either protected opinion or “substantially true,” according to Judge Bibas’ opinion.
“Avenatti dislikes how Fox News covered his arrest,” Judge Bibas writes (page 11). “But he cannot overcome the truthfulness of the gist of Fox’s coverage—he was, after all, arrested for suspected domestic violence. Plus, he has not shown that Defendants knew, or deliberately ignored, any inaccuracies in their reporting. And he expressly disclaims the need to allege special damages, as he must under California law. Perhaps Avenatti can cure the actual malice and damages defects for some of his claims. So I will dismiss his complaint without prejudice.”
Avenatti originally sued Fox News and Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Maria Bartiromo, in Delaware state court for defamation after they reported on his arrest for suspected domestic violence.
Hannity, Ingrahan and Bartiromo said Avenatti was arrested on a charge of domestic violence, that Avenatti’s estranged wife had filed a domestic violence report and that “her face was swollen and bruised,” according to Judge Bibas’ opinion.
Judge Bibas added Avenatti did not deny that he was taken into custody, nor that he got out on bail (page 3). He maintains he was not charged with a crime relating to domestic violence, his ex-wife was not involved in the incident, and there was no allegation that he had left anyone bruised or with a black eye.
“Many of the statements that Avenatti contests do not count as defamation,” writes Judge Bibas (page 5). “Some comments, while caustic, are protected opinion. Many others are substantially true. But opinions and minor inaccuracies cannot anchor a defamation claim.”
The Judge adds: “If Avenatti wishes to file an amended complaint, he must do so within thirty days of this order.”
A Fox News spokesperson released a statement in response to Judge Bibas’ ruling. The statement includes a shot at Avenatti: “We are pleased with the Court’s swift decision in favor of Fox News. Today’s ruling is a victory for journalists everywhere, who should not be intimidated into silence when bullies like Michael Avenatti file baseless multimillion-dollar lawsuits.”
Eric George of Browne George Ross O’Brien Annaguey & Ellis LLP represented Fox News on this case.
Below, Judge Bibas’ 11-page memorandum opinion followed by the order granting Fox News motion to dismiss: