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US top court rejects Boston Globe libel appeal involving a $2.1 million jury award in a doctor's libel lawsuit

Posted on Oct 03, 2005

US top court rejects Boston Globe libel appeal 03 Oct 2005 15:29:09 GMT By James Vicini WASHINGTON, Oct 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court denied on Monday an appeal by The Boston Globe and a former reporter involving a $2.1 million jury award in a doctor's libel lawsuit over the newspaper's coverage of a fatal experimental cancer drug overdose in 1994. Without comment or recorded dissent, the justices let stand a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that upheld the award to Dr. Lois Ayash, who said she had been wrongly blamed in the paper for the overdose that led to the death of Globe health columnist Betsy Lehman. The Globe and reporter Richard Knox had refused to reveal his confidential sources, despite an order from the judge in the case. The judge then issued a default judgment of liability for Ayash on her claims of libel, defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Default judgments are a sanction for failure to perform a legally required duty. Attorneys for the Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co., and for Knox appealed to the Supreme Court. They said the ruling by the state's highest court was wrong in allowing a default judgment in a libel case brought by a public figure, without requiring proof the information at issue was false or had been published with actual malice. They said the Supreme Court should use the case to clarify whether and the extent to which the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press protect confidential sources from disclosure in civil cases in general and in libel cases by public figures in particular. There have been a number of recent instances when reporters have been ordered to disclose their confidential sources. New York Times reporter Judith Miller was released last week after spending 85 days in jail. She finally agreed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating who in the Bush administration leaked a covert CIA operative's name to the media. And a U.S. appeals court in June found four journalists in contempt for refusing to disclose the names of their sources in the case of Wen Ho lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist once suspected of espionage. A number of news media companies and organizations supported the Globe's appeal. They said the Supreme Judicial Court's decision placed "longstanding journalistic values at great risk" involving the use of confidential sources to report on matters of public concern. A jury had awarded $1.68 million against the Globe and $420,000 against Knox, who now is employed by National Public Radio. The libel claim centered on a 1995 story by Knox that said Ayash had countersigned an erroneous medical order that resulted in Lehman's death. The newspaper later published a correction that Ayash had not countersigned the overdose order, but it stood by its claim that she was the leader of the team treating the 39-year-old Lehman. Another breast cancer patient at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute had mistakenly been given an overdose of the highly toxic drug, but she survived.

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