ESPN, Inc. put legendary boxing promoter Don King down for the count this summer when a Florida appellate court upheld summary judgment in favor of the sports media giant on King's defamation claims in Don King Productions, Inc. v. Walt Disney Co., No. 4D08-3704, 2010 WL 2675308 (Fla. 4th DCA June 30, 2010). This heavyweight bout began when King brought suit against ESPN and several related entities for comments made during an ESPN "SportsCentury" television program about King's life and career. The trial court in Broward County, Fla., granted ESPN's motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no issue of material fact from which a jury could find -- by clear and convincing evidence -- that ESPN had published the statements with actual malice. Moreover, King had failed to establish the falsity of the statements. On appeal, Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed, and in so doing, reiterated the exacting standards necessary for a public figure to prevail in a defamation claim against the media.
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King's original complaint alleged defamation and false light invasion of privacy against ESPN. On appeal, King pursued only the defamation claims, after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that false light is not a recognized tort in Florida. King's suit was based on five statements made during the course of the "SportsCentury" program: four made by or based on information from fellow boxing promoter Don Elbaum; and one by Jack Newfield, a journalist and author of a book about King's life titled "Only in America." King asserted that Elbaum falsely made the following four statements: 1) King failed to pay $1 million owed to fighter Meldrick Taylor; 2) King threatened to kill Taylor; 3) a hospital did not receive funds raised at a benefit fight organized by King; and 4) King solicited $250,000 from doctors to invest in a movie about his life that was never made. As for Newfield, King took issue with his description of an encounter with King at a press conference where King allegedly threatened to have Newfield killed. Although the trial court found that King failed to produce evidence to even prove the falsity of these statements, the appellate court disagreed. It held that as to three of the five statements, there was at least an issue of fact as to their truth. However, the appellate court recognized that "falsity alone is insufficient to make a claim for defamation," and directed its attention to whether King provided proof from which a jury could find, by clear and convincing evidence, that ESPN acted with actual malice in publishing the five challenged statements.
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