The Virginian-Pilot must pay a high school assistant principal Phillip Webb $3 million for a 2009 story, the Associated Press reported. Webb works at Oscar Smith High School. In its own report on the libel case, the Virginian-Pilot noted its editor, Denis Finley, defended the newspaper’s reporting as “accurate and true” and called the verdict “frustrating.”
The story reported on a 2008 “assault” of the father of a student at Webb’s high school. Webb’s two sons, Kevin and Brian Webb, were both “convicted of misdemeanor assault,” according to the Virginian-Pilot. We searched Google and Lexis Nexis but couldn’t find the article in question.
However, Webb’s attorney, Jeremiah Denton III, argued the Virginian-Pilot “implied Kevin Webb had received preferential treatment from the school system because of his father’s position.” Denton argued that claim was unsubstantiated and called for a “big apology to the Webb family.”
Denton told iMediaEthics by phone that Webb is satisfied with the ruling, that the recent case was “just a money judgment” and that the newspaper doesn’t have to apologize. Denton noted that “all indications are that the newspaper will appeal” the ruling and that the Virginian-Pilot has “three weeks to file a brief” to try to appeal. According to Denton, the Virginian-Pilot took down the story in question at some point last year “after the outcome of the son’s trial.”
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In that case, Kevin Webb “settled out of court for an undisclosed sum” with his separate libel lawsuit against the newspaper, according to the Virginian-Pilot’s report. A jury had ruled in favor of Kevin Webb, but the judge “threw out that jury’s $5 million award.” Denton explained to iMediaEthics that the judge decided “five million dollars was too much, so we were going to go back to trial” to determine how the award amount but ultimately settled.
According to Student Press Law Center’s and the Virginian-Pilot’s article at the time, that case happened last year and centered on Kevin Webb’s claims the article “falsely accused him of the bullying.” The newspaper defended against that lawsuit by arguing the story was “accurate” and “carefully reported it from interviews and court records, including asking the Webbs for interviews at the sentencing but was rebuffed.”
We have written to the Virginian-Pilot for further comment and wll update with any response.
UPDATE: 5/29/2012 3:53 PM EST: The Virginian-Pilot’s managing editor Maria Carrillo told iMediaEthics that the newspaper is appealing the judgment and that it “voluntarily took the story down some time ago. But that’s all we can say for now.”