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Kentucky high court reinstates verdict against WHAS-TV

By The Associated Press
08.30.05

Editor's note: On May 2, 2006, the Associated Press reported that Belo Corp. of Dallas, owner of WHAS-TV, had paid $7.4 million in April to end the 12-year-old defamation lawsuit stemming from a report about a roller-coaster accident at the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Supreme Court reinstated a nearly $3 million defamation judgment against WHAS-TV of Louisville for a report about a roller coaster accident at the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park in June 1994.

A trial court had found for the park and levied $3.975 million in damages against the television station and its owner, Belo Kentucky Inc.

The Court of Appeals overturned the trial court, but was itself overruled by the state's highest court.

The accident on July 26, 1994, seriously injured a 7-year-old girl. A day later, a WHAS-TV reporter interviewed a witness who said the Starchaser roller coaster was dangerous. The reporter then said: "State inspectors also think the ride is too dangerous."

In a 4-3 decision Aug. 25, Justice Donald Wintersheimer said the station damaged the park by reporting that the roller coaster was dangerous and that state inspectors also thought the ride was dangerous. Subsequent court proceedings revealed that no state inspectors had given an opinion on the ride and, in fact, a state official had called the station to complain that the report was inaccurate.

The court reinstated the original award, minus $1 million. Wintersheimer said it was impossible to determine the damage to the park's reputation. The rest of the award was based on lost profits and punitive damages.

"This case is full of evidence from which the jury could conclude that WHAS-TV acted with actual malice," Wintersheimer said.

The station failed to correct inaccuracies or even investigate questions about items contained in the report, Wintersheimer said.

In dissent, Justice William Cooper said the station should win in part because the report was substantially accurate.


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