Lin Wood (left) and Taylor Wilson of  L.Lin Wood PC, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

Atlanta libel lawyer L. Lin Wood said he notched a settlement against one television network and a preliminary win against another over TV specials featuring unsolved crimes—cases that he said should serve as a warning to other media companies.

In civil cases associated with two of the most sensational unsolved crime mysteries of the past two decades, Wood on Jan. 4 consummated a settlement agreement in a $750 million defamation case against CBS and on Jan. 7 secured a favorable ruling from an Alabama judge who refused to dismiss a fraud and outrage case against cable crime network Oxygen Media.

Wood confirmed that he reached a confidential settlement with CBS in a 2016 defamation case he filed on behalf of Burke Ramsey, the older brother of slain 6-year-old child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey. In Alabama, Wood represents Beth Holloway, the mother of 19-year-old Natalee Holloway, who disappeared during a high school trip to Aruba in 2005 and whose body has never been found.

Wood filed the Ramsey and Holloway lawsuits after the networks revisited JonBenet’s slaying and Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in multipart television retrospectives intended to appeal to a growing audience for sensational crime stories.

“In an era of fake news, in continually deteriorating discussions of issues on social media and the Internet, these cases are vitally important to send a message to the public that there are lines you cannot cross without being held legally accountable,” Wood said.

Fraud and Outrage Claims

In the Alabama case, Chief Judge Karon Owen Bowdre of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama denied Oxygen Media’s motion to dismiss Holloway’s fraud and outrage claims stemming from the cable network’s alleged ruse in securing her DNA in 2017 by leading her to believe her daughter’s missing body had finally been found. An outrage claim, while extremely limited, allows for the recovery of damages for emotional distress that was either intentional or reckless and so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.

“Even the most deeply wounding conduct rarely gives rise to civil liability for the tort of outrage,” Bowdre wrote in her order. “Suffering offense from truly insulting conduct is sometimes an unfortunate fact of life, so the law understandably hesitates to impose money damages for causing emotional distress in the minds of others. But, in very limited circumstances, the law recognizes extremely egregious conduct that no person should be expected to endure without some sort of civil justice. This case plausibly presents such outrageous conduct.”

“The First Amendment does not protect against a claim for outrage brought by a public figure if the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with actual malice, i.e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true,” Bowdre added. “Ms. Holloway has alleged facts showing that defendants plausibly acted with actual malice.”

Wood partner Taylor Wilson called Bowdre’s ruling “well-reasoned” and “a huge victory” for Holloway, adding Oxygen Media “crossed the line.”

“Media efforts to profit off the tragic disappearance of Natalee must end,” he said. “As the years have gone by since Natalee’s 2005 disappearance, some members of the media have continued to ratchet up the sensationalism in their efforts for ratings and money.”

Oxygen Media lawyers John Thompson of Birmingham, Alabama, firm Lightfoot Franklin & White, and Cameron Stracher of Westport, Connecticut, could not be reached for comment.

Wood said he sued on Holloway’s behalf after she was persuaded to supply a DNA sample, allegedly because a friend of a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance had produced bone fragments that were supposedly her daughter’s from an Aruba burial site. In reality, the fragments were from a boar’s head, according to the complaint. “They failed to disclose who had discovered the bones, that the Aruban authorities had declared the bones to be animal bones or that Beth’s DNA would be used on television,” Wood said.

“I don’t believe there is any mother of a missing child who ever gives up hope that her child will be found or, at least, her body will be discovered,” Wood said. “Every mother clings to the belief, however slim or however long, that her child will be found.” To “dangle the prospects in front of Natalee’s mother that they may have found Natalee’s body and then to solicit her DNA” constitutes “the type of outrageous, egregious conduct that civilized society cannot and should not tolerate,” Wood said.

A Ramsey Retrospective

Wood said Burke Ramsey’s settlement with CBS includes a confidentiality clause that bars him from discussing the terms. Wood filed the case after CBS aired a four-hour retrospective over two nights in 2016.

The episodes resurrected long discredited theories that Ramsey killed his younger sister, Wood said. Ramsey was 9 years old when his sister died.

Wood has represented Ramsey since 1999 and previously settled defamation claims he filed on Ramsey’s behalf against tabloids including The Star, its corporate parent, American Media Inc.; The Globe and its parent companies, The New York Post and Court TV. All the settlements were confidential.

CBS counsel Charles Tobin of Ballard Spahr in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment. A CBS spokesman said the case was “amicably resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”

The case, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court in Michigan, settled after the presiding judge denied CBS’s motion for a summary disposition dismissing the case. In his order, Judge David Groner rejected CBS’s arguments that the network retrospective rested on constitutionally protected expression of opinion and theories concerning how JonBenét might have been killed.

“The mere qualification of a sentence with the phrase ‘in my opinion’ does not eliminate the impact on the subject of the allegedly defamatory content,” Groner concluded.