PITTSBURGH — An appeals court has upheld a visiting judge's decision to throw out a libel lawsuit against a Pittsburgh television station that had reported an Allegheny County judge used a racial slur during an argument with an airport baggage screener.
WPXI reported in February 1996 that Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning used a racial slur after an airport baggage screener ripped a garment bag in passing it through an X-ray machine.
Manning always denied using the slur during the Dec. 20, 1995, confrontation with the black employee at Pittsburgh International Airport. He sued in 1997 and Northumberland County Judge Barry Feudale, brought in to hear the case, dismissed the suit in November 2002.
The Superior Court panel ruled 2-1 on Oct. 11 that because Manning is a public figure, he must prove that the station acted with "actual malice" in airing the reports.
The court then found that the station wasn't malicious because it double-checked the information with various witnesses, spent weeks pursuing the story, and referred to a county police report — making it clear that the police report didn't mention a slur and that Manning denied the allegation.
"Indeed, there is a plethora of case law finding an absence of actual malice when the media appellant acted with significantly less corroboration and investigation," said the majority opinion issued by Judges John T. Bender and Justin Morris Johnson.
"We have reviewed the opinion and we are obviously pleased," said Walter Deforest III, the station's attorney.
Superior Court Judge Jack A. Panella dissented from the decision, saying a jury should hear the case because some of the evidence could be interpreted as showing that the TV station reported the story despite conflicting accounts of the incident and that the station "had a preconceived agenda in reporting the story with a slant against Manning."
Manning didn't return a call seeking comment, but his attorney, Gary Zimmerman, said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court. Zimmerman said the appeals court judges ignored the facts of the case, including evidence that the station's former producer told him that he was going to report the story "his way" despite the fact that the police report did not mention a slur.
"Channel 11 attempted to destroy Judge Manning's life over information they knew was false," Zimmerman said. He said Manning was cleared of wrongdoing by the state Court of Judicial Discipline, which held a trial into the allegations.
The baggage screener, Ursula Riggins, gave her employer, Ogden Security, two written statements on the day of the incident. In the first, she said Manning's son and fiance "kept giving me the finger and called me a (racial slur) several times." In a second statement, she attributed the slur to Manning.
Other employees supported Riggins' report that Manning used the slur, but the county police report didn't mention it. Channel 11 interviewed six other employees who said they heard Manning make a racial remark about Riggins, but one had previously filed a written statement denying that he heard anything, which the broadcast didn't mention, the ruling said.