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In a one-two punch, L. Lin Wood Jr. hassettled two unrelated libel cases: one brought by the parents of JonBen�tRamsey against a police detective turned author and a second filed by AirTranAirways Inc. against the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Wood reached both settlements with attorneysat Washington, D.C.-based Dow, Lohnes & Albertson — his legal arch-nemesis in libel litigation. The terms of both settlements are confidential, Wood said. The Atlanta lawyer said he reached a verbal settlement last Friday on behalf of John and Patsy Ramsey with attorneys representing former Boulder, Colo., police detective Steve Thomas. AirTran’s libel suit against the Plain Dealer settled two weeks ago. Wood said both cases settled after hisclients secured favorable court rulings from two federal judges in Atlanta. Attorneys representing Thomas, co-author DonDavis and their publisher, St. Martin’s Press, offered to settle with the Ramseys the same day that U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt Jr. decided the libel case could be tried in Georgia, said Wood. Ramsey v. Thomas, No.1:01-cv-801 (N.D. Ga. March 17, 2002). Thomas and Davis wrote “JonBen�t: Insidethe Ramsey Murder Investigation.” Sean R. Smith, an attorney at Dow, Lohnes& Albertson, which defended Davis and St. Martin’s, declined to comment on the case. The firm is also local counsel for Los Angeles attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli, who represented Thomas. Petrocelli was not available for comment. David Kaye, senior vice president for legalaffairs at St. Martin’s in New York, neither would confirm nor would deny that a settlement agreement has been reached. The Ramseys sued Thomas last year, claimingthat his book on the investigation of their 6-year-old daughter’s 1996 murder laid the blame for the slaying squarely on Patsy Ramsey. The suit accused Thomas of libel and slander and sought $80 million in damages. As a Boulder, Colo., police detective, Thomas was assigned to investigate JonBen�t’s death. In 2000, a grand jury declined to indict the Ramseys for their daughter’s slaying. The Ramseys moved to the Atlanta area in 1997. Wood said Hunt’s order means that, “If youwrite the book, baby, you distribute it in Georgia, you make money on it in Georgia, and the plaintiff lives in Georgia, you can be sued in Georgia.” Wood said that trying the case in Georgia “isinherently more fair.” “Think about how difficult it would be formost individuals to have to go to Colorado or New York to pursue a libel caseeven though the damage occurs to them where they reside,” he said. And, in the Ramseys’ case, the couple”clearly is going to be treated more fairly in Georgia where they have notsuffered the negative publicity that they suffered in Colorado.” Thomas’ attorneys had argued that the suitcould not be tried in Georgia but, rather, must be tried in Colorado where JonBen�t was killed and where the majority of the book was written. Hunt disagreed. “First, both Mr. Thomas andMr. Davis traveled to Georgia, though Mr. Thomas more often than Mr. Davis, todo research on the Ramseys and to visit certain locations located in Atlanta in preparation for the book, including the home of the Ramseys and the grave of JonBen�t Ramsey,” Hunt wrote. “Second, the book has been heavily marketedand sold in Atlanta, Georgia, a likely high sales area due to the fact that theRamseys re-located here from Boulder, Colorado. … Mr. Davis and Mr. Thomas havenot denied the fact that they derive substantial profits from the sales of thebooks, including those sales performed in Georgia. At the time the book was published and released for sale, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Davis were accusing Georgia residents of a crime, thereby affecting their reputation in their home community of Atlanta, Georgia. … [A]lmost all of the harm, or the ‘effects’ resulting from the book would take place wherever the Ramseys lived at the time the book was published, marketed and sold.” Wood said the settlement with Thomas “totallyvindicates” the Ramseys. However, he noted that Thomas “doesn’t have a whole lot of money.” He added, “The dollar amount is irrelevant tothe Ramseys. They sued this case as a matter of principle.” Like most settlements, the defendants made no admissions. But, Wood insisted, “The result speaks for itself. How many people settle a libel case?” CLEVELAND NEWSPAPER SETTLES WITH AIRTRAN St. Martin’s, Thomas and Davis were not theonly ones to fold. The Plain Dealer also settled a libel claim in which AirTranaccused the Ohio newspaper of publishing a 1998 article that was false and malicious. The article, by the newspaper’s Washingtoncorrespondent Elizabeth A. Marchak, allegedly mischaracterized the preliminaryfindings of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regarding the agency’s1997 inspection of the airline, then based in Atlanta and known as ValuJet. The inspection was made more than a yearafter a ValuJet airliner caught fire and plunged into the Florida Everglades,killing everyone aboard. The Plain Dealer story, published Jan. 11,1998, stated that a draft FAA inspection report delivered to Marchak by an anonymous source uncovered “serious safety violations.” A final report, released two months later, said FAA inspectors had found no violations seriousenough to affect AirTran’s airworthiness. In an order last month, U.S. Senior DistrictJudge Charles A. Moye Jr. refused to grant summary judgment to the PlainDealer. AirTran Airlines v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., No.1:98-cv-1750 (Feb. 26, 2002). Moye singled out Marchak’s deposition andtranscripts of her conversations with FAA personnel and airline representativesas evidence that there was a “genuine issue of material fact” as to whether her article not only was false, but demonstrated actual malice. And he dismissed arguments by Dow Lohnes’ Smith, who was also the Plain Dealer’s attorney, that Marchak’s reporting, even if false, was protected by the “fair reporting privilege.” Smith confirmed the settlement but declinedto comment on either its terms or on Moye’s order. Moye wrote that there was a “genuine issue ofmaterial fact” as to whether the Plain Dealer’s headlines or assertionscontained in the article were false. The Plain Dealer headlines stated that safety violations continued to plague AirTran in the wake of a 1996 Florida crash. Thearticle asserted that the FAA had recommended prior to that crash that the airline be grounded. Moye added that he was not impressed by thenewspaper’s claim of the fair reporting privilege. Under the fair reporting privilege, accurateand fair reports of official proceedings are not grounds for libel suits. But Moye seemed to suggest that the fair reporting principle had to be held to a higher standard in investigative news stories. “As to the fair reporting privilege, mainlyprotecting matter written under the pressure of imminent publication by persons who might not be familiar with the subject matter, the record here shows that the article was in fact investigative, not news, reporting,” Moye wrote. “It was based on a ‘leaked’ document whichlay on the investigative reporter’s desk for at least a couple of weeks before it received any attention, and that it was only about three-to-four weeks later, just two days before publication, that the reporter really began working on it by calling persons at the FAA and AirTran, asking for information andaccess to persons to which she undoubtedly would be denied.”

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