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Federal appeals court throws out most of verdict against NBC

The Associated Press
03.07.00

"Dateline ...
"Dateline NBC" correspondent Fred Francis, center, and freelance producer Alan Handel, right, leave Federal Court in Bangor, Maine, in 1998, with their attorney, Bernard Kubetz, during a civil trial over story on tired truckers.

PORTLAND, Maine — An attorney for "Dateline NBC" hailed yesterday's dismissal of most of a lawsuit over a show on tired truckers, calling it a victory for the First Amendment and a vindication of his argument that accuracy is the best defense.

"From the outset, it was NBC's position that they should not be found liable for an accurate news broadcast," said Bernard Kubetz, NBC's lawyer from Bangor.

Peter Kennedy of Dedham and his employer claimed NBC misrepresented itself by saying it planned a positive story about the trucking industry and instead aired a report focusing on problems caused by tired truckers.

But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed a Bangor jury's defamation verdict on Monday and threw out $525,000 in damages. It also reversed the jury's verdicts on plaintiff claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

It left intact a limited misrepresentation claim by trucking company owner Ray Veilleux, as well as his wife's claim for loss of consortium. That portion of the verdict was sent back to the U.S. District Court for reconsideration.

NBC insisted the only promise it made to Kennedy and the trucking company's owner was to accurately report on Kennedy's trip, and that the report was based on statements by Veilleux and Kennedy and on observations.

"Our position always was it may not have been a flattering report, it may not have been a report that Peter Kennedy and Ray Veilleux were hoping for, but it was an accurate report," Kubetz said.

Bill Robitzek, who represented the trucking firm, Classic Carriers, was not able to review the decision because he was not in his Lewiston office. He declined to comment except to say, "I'm clearly disappointed with the result."

The 1995 "Dateline NBC" program stemmed from a crash in which a rig driven by a trucker who falsified his logbook veered into the breakdown lane of the Maine Turnpike and killed four teen-agers in a parked car.

"Dateline NBC" arranged to tag along with Kennedy during a cross-country trip for a follow-up story.

Its ensuing broadcasts, which aired during two segments, reported that Kennedy called his logbook a "lie book" and drove from Chicago to Boston without stopping to sleep as the law required.

At one point on the videotape, NBC's Fred Francis asked Kennedy what he was doing. The driver replied: "Falsifying my log book."

Also, Kennedy later received word that a drug test taken during the trip showed residues of marijuana and amphetamines. "Dateline" reported on the test results, which Robitzek said should have been kept confidential.

Robitzek contended previously that "Dateline" failed to mention Kennedy's assertion that he was a safe driver who always pulled over when he was tired.

He also said the pressure to drive extra hours came from Kennedy having to change his schedule to accommodate the delays of the television crew.


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