Late last month, the family of Nicholas Sandmann filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post seeking $250 million in damages (roughly the amount Jeff Bezos paid to purchase the newspaper in 2013). Sandmann is the Covington Catholic High School teenager whose standoff with Native American activist Nathan Phillips went viral earlier this year. According to the lawsuit, the Post allegedly defamed Sandmann by initially describing Sandmann as the instigator of the confrontation with Phillips and for portraying Sandmann as “engaged in acts of racism by ‘swarming’ Phillips, ‘blocking’ his exit away from the students, and otherwise engaging in racist misconduct.”
Sandmann was one of a number of students from Covington Catholic High School who were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats during a trip to the National Mall when they encountered Phillips. A media firestorm surrounding Sandmann kicked off following an online video depicting an apparent standoff between Sandmann and Phillips near the Lincoln Memorial. Comments online and on Twitter following the release of the video were quick to brand Sandmann and to a lesser extent the other Covington students shown in the video, as MAGA bigots. News accounts, including in The Washington Post, of the confrontation, sparked a media firestorm and national debate over the behavior of the participants.
Additional video footage, however, seemed to complicate the characterization of Sandmann as a bigot or the instigator of the confrontation with Phillips. Ultimately, several prominent media outlets and personalities issued apologies for having rushed to judgment. The Sandmann family, however, has contended that the alleged harm to their son’s reputation and standing in the community was already done and is demanding both compensatory and punitive damages.
The libel lawsuit alleges that The Washington Post “targeted and bullied” the 16-year-old in order to embarrass President Trump. The lengthy complaint alleges that Sandmann’s reputation has been harmed as a result of seven allegedly “false and defamatory” articles published online or in print by Washington The Post. The complaint also identifies tweets sent by the media company to promote its stories.
It may be an uphill battle to win a libel lawsuit against a media organization. First Amendment jurisprudence including New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny have generally given journalists great protection. In one attempt to avoid the protections this case law affords journalists, the Sandmann complaint alleges that Sandmann was not a public figure, which means Sandmann would not need to prove actual malice but would only need to prove that The Washington Post was negligent in its coverage to recover. The Washington Post, meanwhile, will likely try to argue that Sandmann is a limited public figure, which would require him to prove actual malice as part of the prima facie case of defamation. Regardless of the outcome of the suit, Sandmann caught the attention of the President who tweeted his support for the lawsuit commenting, “Covington student suing WAPO,” “Go get them Nick. Fake News!”
The Sandmanns’ lead attorney is L. Lin Wood, who represented Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused in the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996. He also represented John and Patsy Ramsey in pursuing defamation claims against media outlets in connection with reports on the death of their young daughter, JonBenet. If successful, the lawsuit could cause the Washington Post to pay out the most expensive defamation award in U.S. history. At $250 million, the award would best by more than $25 million the current largest defamation award from a 1997 case in which a brokerage firm sued the Wall Street Journal and won some $222.7 million.
Our Chicago defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern. You can view here a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense. Here is an arbitration decision where we won a decision in favor our client after we presented evidence and cross-examined the used car dealer defendant at a hearing where we proved that our client’s 20 plus Youtube videos voicing his opinion that a used car dealer committed consumer fraud were true, were protected opinions under the First Amendment, or involved inconsequential and minor errors of fact. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million suit for libel per se in federal district court. You can read about that case here.
Our Chicago Cybersquatting attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Buffalo Grove and Palatine who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating sites and pretend consumer rating sites that are simply forums to falsely bash or business clients. We have also represented and defended consumers First Amendment and free speech rights to criticize businesses who are guilty of consumer fraud and false advertising.
Super Lawyers named Chicago and Oak Brook business trial attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation, and Consumer Rights Litigation and Chicago slander attorney Patrick Austermuehle a Rising Star. Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business trial lawyers have over thirty years of experience in litigating complex class action, consumer rights, and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business lawsuits involving injunctions and TROs, defamation, libel, and covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud or defamatory attacks on their business and reputations.
Lubin Austermuehle’s Lake County defamation and slander lawyers near Barrington and Waukegan have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state business laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Elmhurst and Deerfield near Northbrook and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest.