Third District Court of Appeal ()
A state appeals court Wednesday breathed life into a libel suit filed by defeated U.S. Senate candidate and Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene over articles published by the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times shortly before the 2010 primary.
The Third District Court of Appeal in Miami found the lawsuit should not have been dismissed because the articles could be seen as defamatory if not true.
“They directly portrayed Greene as a participant in criminal real estate and mortgage fraud, who needed to be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as a yacht owner who either took part in or allowed his yacht to be used in illegal drug use and ‘sexcapades,’ ” Judge Vance Salter wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
The court reversed the dismissal by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Valerie R. Manno Schurr, who ruled in favor of the Times Publishing Co., Miami Herald Media Co. and three reporters: Kris Hundley, Caryn Baird and Adam Smith.
Manno Schurr’s ruling said simply disliking how a story was written doesn’t automatically provide the basis for libel.
Greene insisted the articles were published two weeks before the Democratic primary election to derail his campaign. He lost to four-term U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Meek in the general election.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision to allow the case to go forward,” said one of Greene’s attorneys, Stanley Wakshlag, a partner at Kenny Nachwalter in Miami.
Salter wrote, “Greene has adequately detailed a cause of action for libel as to each article and each defendant.” Judges Frank A. Shepherd and Leslie B. Rothenberg concurred.
Greene sued over an August 2010 article and editorial in the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, about his role in the 2006 sale of La Mirage, a 300-unit California condominium complex fashioned out of old military housing in the Mojave Desert.
The Times reported the deal involved inflated sales prices to straw buyers that cost banks and taxpayers millions. Greene’s company sold the units to a man who was later indicted by a federal grand jury for fraud and money laundering in connection with La Mirage and other real estate transactions.
The libel lawsuit also took on a third article that ran Aug. 13, 2010, about reports of partying on Greene’s 145-foot yacht, the Summerwind.
Salter said the court disagreed with the defendants’ position that parts of the stories are non-actionable because they accurately reported statements of nonparties.
“The actionable and provable false and defamatory statements, if any, will winnow out via pretrial discovery and motions for summary judgment,” Salter wrote.
Attorney George K. Rahdert, a partner Rahdert, Steele, Reynolds & Driscoll in St. Petersburg, representing the newspapers and reporters, said courts are generally reluctant to end litigation too early.
He said the revived case on summary judgment could center on whether the court will make a distinction between Greene and the corporation he controlled.
“We believe the stories were accurate and the journalism will be vindicated in further litigation proceedings,” Rahdert said.