Texas Web Publishers Earn Novel Protection Against Stale Lawsuits

by Jackson Walker
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In a case of first impression for a state appellate court, a Texas broadcaster was protected against a stale libel suit arising from a news report posted to the Internet.

Jackson Walker partner Paul C. Watler defended KBTX–TV of Bryan–College Station against claims by a disbarred Houston attorney arising from online reporting on her felony conviction for forgery.

In resolving the novel question of Texas law, the 14th Court of Appeals adopted the "single–publication rule" to bar a libel suit brought more than one year after the allegedly defamatory news report was posted online by the television station. Mayfield v. Gray Television Group, Inc., 2014 Tex. App. Lexis 9275 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th], August 21, 2014.

The reports were posted to the Internet in 2007–08 but suit was not filed until 2011. KBTX was granted summary judgment in the trial court based on the one–year statute of limitations for libel in Texas. The station argued that the single–publication rule applied to bar the claim on limitations, regardless of whether the news reports had been accessed by online readers continuously since publication or within one year of suit.

On appeal by the plaintiff, the 14th Court noted that it found no "Texas cases addressing whether the single publication rule applies to a media report posted on the internet." However, it noted that in Nationwide Bi–Weekly Administration, Inc. v. Belo Corp., 512, F.3d 137 (5th Cir. 2007), the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals predicted the Texas Supreme Court would apply the rule to a report published on the internet and reject "the continuous publication rule" suggested by the plaintiff – that when such a report remains constantly available on the Internet, each day results in a new publication.

The 14th Court held that the factors relied on by the Fifth Circuit in applying the rule – chiefly, the similarities between print and the Internet and the policy of avoiding chilling of internet communications by an endless retriggering of limitations – compelled adopting the rule in Texas. In doing so, the 14th Court joined the majority of states who have applied the print–era rule to digital communications on the Internet.

The Mayfield v. Gray Television case is the third victory for JW partner Paul C. Watler in federal and Texas appellate courts for media and online clients on novel issues of law related to Internet publications. Watler, who was named the "Go To" lawyer for media litigation in the Lone Star State by Texas Lawyer, also represented successful web publishers in the Nationwide Bi–Weekly and Revell v. Lidov, 317 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2002) cases in the Fifth Circuit.

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