A New York state appeals panel Tuesday upheld the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit brought by a claimed rescuer at the World Trade Center site against NBC’s “Dateline,” three of its editorial employees and three others, including a reporter at the Albuquerque Journal, who were interviewed on the program.
A unanimous opinion, written by Justice Dianne T. Renwick of the Appellate Division, 1st Department dismissed Doug Copp’s claims against “Dateline” host Stone Phillips, reporter John Hockenberry and an editor, finding that Copp’s lawyers had failed to properly notice his appeal against NBC and its employees.
The opinion further dismissed for lack of jurisdiction Copp’s claims against the Albuquerque Journal reporter, Leslie Linthicum, and two filmmakers who were interviewed on the “Dateline” program, which aired three years after Copp had journeyed to New York to rescue survivors and recover human remains after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The connection with New York to alleged defamatory statements in interviews made three years after the fact in New Mexico was too tenuous to support jurisdiction under New York’s long-arm statute, CPLR §302(a)(1), Justice Renwick concluded in Copp v. Ramirez, 109122/06.
The ruling affirmed Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Richard F. Braun’s decision dismissing the complaint because Copp had failed to prove the falsity of the statements he alleged to be defamatory. Braun, like the 1st Department, found a lack of long-arm jurisdiction over the New Mexico-based defendants.
According to the opinion, Copp arrived in New York on Sept. 13, 2001, claiming he had a special device capable of locating survivors and human remains in the rubble. He was accompanied on his flight to New York by Linthicum and the two filmmakers, Michael L. Miller and John M. Grace.
All three accompanied Copp to Ground Zero, where he unsuccessfully attempted to detect human remains in the debris with his device, which was called the “Copp Casualty Locator.”
The longest that Linthicum and the two filmmakers stayed in New York was 60 hours.
Copp was subsequently awarded $650,000 from a federal fund to compensate victims of the attacks.
The “Dateline” segment was based on a four-part investigative series that Linthicum wrote in the Alburquerque Journal, which, according to the opinion, cast doubt on whether Copp was entitled to receive compensation from the fund. The article also reported that the U.S. Justice Department had opened an investigation into Copp’s application for compensation from the fund.
On the air, Hockenberry, a reporter for “Dateline,” challenged Copp’s assertion in his application for compensation that his device had been used to recover 40 bodies.
Renwick stated in the opinion that Copp had not recovered any human remains during his two weeks at Ground Zero but claimed he was able to recover remains at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island.
Copp’s lawyer, Sheldon Karasik, said he could not comment because he had not yet read the opinion. Copp stated in an e-mail that “it is hard for a poor and sick 911 rescuer to get justice against a billion dollar company, but I had to try.”
In concluding that there was no long-arm jurisdiction, Justice Renwick wrote that the facts of Copp’s claim were indistinguishable from those in the New York Court of Appeals’ 1988 ruling in Talbot v. Johnson Newspaper Corp., 71 NY2d 827.
In Talbot, the court upheld the dismissal of a libel suit against a woman who gave a phone interview from California to a New York newspaper claiming she had observed her college coach behaving improperly at a party two years after she had graduated from a New York college.
The other members of the panel, which heard oral argument on Dec. 3, were Justices David Friedman, John W. Sweeny Jr., James M. McGuire and Helen E. Freedman.
In dismissing the appeal against NBC, Renwick noted that Braun had issued three separate orders dismissing Copp’s suit against the defendants: NBC and its employees; Linthicum, the newspaper reporter; and the two filmmakers.
But, Justice Renwick wrote, Copp had only referred to two “Short Form Orders” in his notice of appeal, and included only the two orders dismissing claims against the three New Mexico defendants in its appendix.
Given that state of the record, Justice Renwick concluded that Copp’s appeal against the NBC defendants was jurisdictionally defective. She added that, while the court had the power to ignore the flaw under its interest of justice jurisdiction, it declined “to do so under these circumstances.”
Julie Rikelman, an in-house counsel at NBC, represented the network and its employees.
Linthicum was represented by Mark A. Fowler and James Regan of Satterlee Stephens Burke & Burke.
The two filmmakers, Miller and Grace, were represented by David A. Donahue and Betsy Judelson Newman of Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu.
Andrew C. Miller worked with Karasik, of Karasik and Associates, in representing Copp.