The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a libel suit filed by a police officer following news reports that he lied about his military record in a national case of stolen valor.
Shane Ladner, a former Holly Springs police officer, sued New World Communications of Atlanta, the parent company of Fox 5 Atlanta, for defamation after Ladner and his wife were among veterans on a float that collided with a train in November 2012 during a parade for war heroes in Midland, Texas. Four veterans died, and Ladner’s wife, Meg, lost her leg as a result of the collision.
National coverage of the accident and the plight of Ladner’s wife eventually led to questions about Ladner’s military service and his claim that he was awarded a Purple Heart. The television station broadcast five reports investigating and challenging that claim.
In an opinion authored by Judge Carla Wong McMillian, a three-judge appellate panel unanimously held that the trial court was right to grant summary judgment to Fox 5 and dismiss Ladner’s defamation claims.
While the case was on appeal, Ladner was convicted in June by a Cherokee County jury on multiple counts of lying about receiving a Purple Heart—falsehoods that resulted in criminal charges because he obtained a state-issued license plate that allowed him to avoid ad valorem taxes. Earlier this month, Ladner was sentenced to ten years probation, ordered to perform 600 hours of community service and pay $6,000 in restitution.
The panel—which included Judges Anne Barnes and Amanda Mercier—first determined that Ladner was a limited purpose public figure, in part because of national coverage of the accident, the investigations resulting from the fatal train collision, and the victims’ status as wounded veterans. Ladner also voluntarily and frequently sought public recognition for his military service by participating in the Texas event honoring war heroes and then, after the accident, by giving numerous interviews, appearing at fundraisers for his wife and himself and filing a personal injury lawsuit, McMillian wrote.
The public figure determination set a high bar for Ladner’s defamation claim, requiring him to prove the television station reported false information and did so with malice, McMillian wrote. After listing multiple sources and records that reporter Randy Travis relied on, McMillian also noted that Ladner admitted that he lied about serving in Panama, where he claimed he was wounded. She also noted Travis’ repeated efforts to give Ladner and his lawyer an opportunity to counter his findings.
Ladner did serve in the Army, but he was still in high school during the Panama invasion.
“The evidence shows no knowledge on the part of Fox 5 or Travis that his reports were false; to the contrary, Travis asserted that he believed at the time and continued to believe they were accurate,” the opinion says. “Moreover, the extent of Travis’s investigation and his reporting of Ladner’s explanations for any discrepancies in his record demonstrate that they did not recklessly disregard whether the reports were false.”