Criminal Issues First Amendment Intentional Torts Negligence

HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel Fights Off Defamation Suit

A Manhattan, New York federal jury cleared HBO of defamation charges on May 8th that had been brought by Mitre Sports International, a British sportswear and equipment supplier.

HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” aired a segment in 2008, “Children of Industry” that accused Mitre Sports of exploiting child labor as part of its soccer ball manufacturing in India. The segment mentioned Mitre 24 times and showed children stitching the name of the company into soccer balls and stated they were paid five cents an hour for their work. Mitre brought suit a month later.

In its complaint, Mitre called the segment a “hoax, “false” and “malicious” in its nature. HBO also refused a request from Mitre to not air the segment until it could fully demonstrate the false and defamatory nature of the piece.

A for-profit corporation may sue for defamation if it is regarding a matter that tends to prejudice its conducting of business or if the alleged defamation may deter others from dealing with it. To prevail on a claim of defamation, a plaintiff must prove it was identified in a false, published statement.

District Court Judge George Daniels made HBO’s case significantly more difficult by ruling that Mitre was not a public figure. Thus, rather than having to prove actual malice, which would require a showing that HBO knowingly published false content or showed a reckless disregard for the truth, Mitre just had to show it was negligent in its reporting. He ruled that Mitre was not a public figure because it wasn’t a “household name”—a ruling enough media entities including ABC, The Associated Press, The New York Times and Fox News found troubling enough to file an amicus brief stating that the ruling had “sown uncertainty” in the standards for covering large corporations.

Despite the lower fault standard, the jury returned a verdict in favor of HBO. Jury deliberations were private, so the reasoning for the verdict is not totally clear. But considering HBO never retracted any part of “Children of Industry,” it is likely the jury simply either found the report to be true or that it was not negligent in its reporting procedures.