By Tom Hals, Jonathan Stempel and Helen Coster
WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) – A jury will decide whether Fox Corp defamed Dominion Voting Systems with false vote-rigging claims aired by Fox News after the 2020 U.S. election, a Delaware judge ruled on Friday, dealing a setback to the media company that had sought to avoid a trial in the $1.6 billion lawsuit.
Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis denied motions from Fox and partially granted Dominion motions to resolve the issue of defamation liability ahead of the scheduled April 17 trial date. The ruling puts the high-profile case in the hands of a jury that will determine whether Fox acted with actual malice and whether Dominion suffered any damages.
The trial, to be held in Wilmington, is expected to last roughly four weeks. It is possible the parties could still settle the case. Davis heard arguments from both sides during a two-day pretrial hearing on March 21 and 22.
“This case is and always has been about the First Amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news,” Fox said in a statement. “Fox will continue to fiercely advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of these proceedings.”
Dominion said it was gratified by the ruling and looked forward to the trial.
This is one of the most closely watched U.S. defamation lawsuits in years and involves one of America’s largest cable networks, home to many prominent conservative commentators.
Denver-based Dominion sued New York-based Fox Corp and Fox News in 2021, accusing them of ruining its reputation by airing false claims by former President Donald Trump and his lawyers that its voting machines were used to rig the outcome of the election against him and in favor of Democrat Joe Biden.
Dominion has said in court filings that internal emails, texts and deposition testimony demonstrate that Fox personnel at every level – from producers to hosts, all the way up to Chairman Rupert Murdoch – knew the election-rigging claims were false and aired them anyway in pursuit of ratings as they lost viewers to far-right outlets that embraced Trump’s claims.
Dominion argued this met the “actual malice” standard to win a defamation case under which a plaintiff must prove a defendant knowingly spread false information or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
Davis, however, said actual malice will be determined by the jury.
The judge ruled in Dominion’s favor on some elements of defamation including that the allegedly defamatory statements by Fox concerned Dominion, that the statements had been published by Fox and were false.
“The evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that (it) is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true,” wrote Davis, using all capital letters for emphasis.
Fox has argued that its coverage of the election claims was protected by press freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment because it was newsworthy and properly framed as opinion or unproven allegations. Fox also has argued that Dominion’s suit advances an overly broad interpretation of U.S. defamation law and is a threat to freedom of the press.
Lawyers for Fox also have invoked the legal doctrine of “neutral reportage,” which holds that the press cannot be held liable for publishing newsworthy allegations in a neutral way.
Davis, however, said in his ruling the doctrine would not shield Fox from liability, because the network did not conduct disinterested reporting.
Fox faces a similar lawsuit by voting-technology company Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7 billion in damages from Fox Corp, the cable network, Fox hosts and guests.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delawared; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)