A Dakota County jury has awarded a holistic healer from Hudson, Wis., $1 million in compensatory damages from KSTP-TV for a March 2009 story it aired about her treatment of a patient, attorneys for both sides said Monday night.
The jury's award is believed to be the largest verdict ever in a Minnesota defamation lawsuit.
Jurors made the award Friday after a weeklong trial before District Judge Richard Spicer, and returned Monday to deliberate on punitive damages. They declined to issue a punitive award.
Attorney Paul Hannah, who represented KSTP, said he based his argument against punitive damages on the fact that the $1 million compensatory award was the largest in state history for such a case and therefore sufficient punishment for the broadcaster.
"I believe that to be the case, that this is the largest," said Hannah, a prominent Minneapolis media law attorney who expects that KSTP, Channel 5 in the Twin Cities, will appeal the verdict and file motions to get it reduced or overturned.
The lawsuit also named as defendants Cheryl and Eric Blaha, former patients of the holistic healer, but the jury found that they were not liable for monetary damages.
The gist of KSTP's story was that Susan Anderson, then known as Susan Wahl, a Hudson doctor of naturopathy, had "de-prescribed" anti-anxiety medication to Cheryl Blaha. Cheryl Blaha then claimed to KSTP in interviews that she had tried to commit suicide as a result of being weaned from the medicine by Anderson.
The story was reported by KSTP's Jennifer Griswold, who declined to comment Monday night when reached by phone, saying any reaction would have to come from Hannah. Hannah said he is not sure whether KSTP plans to issue any statement regarding the verdict.
Naturopathy is an alternative medicine based on the belief that vital energy or vital forces help the body regulate such things as metabolism, reproduction and growth.
In her suit, Anderson claimed medical records indicated that Blaha's own medical doctor had reduced the medication and that there was no proof of the alleged suicide attempt, said Patrick Tierney, Anderson's lawyer.
"That was certainly the heart of it," Tierney said Monday night. "KSTP bought [Blaha's story] hook, line and sinker, and that's what this case was about."
Jury found 'actual malice'
Tierney said he has handled other defamation cases that resulted in verdicts in the high six figures, but none as large as the one against KSTP.
"It's significant," he said, noting that the jury found "actual malice" in its verdict against KSTP, which he said would make it almost impossible for the award to be overturned or reduced.
But Hannah said he will file motions in coming weeks attempting to do just that. He would not elaborate, but the possible grounds for making such post-verdict motions are that the instructions to the jury regarding the law were incorrect or that the facts did not merit such a high award.
Anderson, in a memorandum in support of the suit, claimed KSTP "knew that the story ... was false," as evidenced by pages and pages of medical records dating back to 2007.
Tierney stated that a week after the alleged suicide attempt, the woman met with her doctor "and never mentioned any suicide attempt."
He said the same records also indicate that KSTP knew the claim that Blaha's doctor did not know Blaha was weaning herself from the anti-anxiety medication was false.
Tierney said the jury awarded Anderson about $100,000 for lost earnings, past and future, and $900,000 for damage to her reputation as a result of the broadcast story.
KSTP "created a report instead of reporting on something," he said.
Minneapolis media attorney John Borger said that, although he could not say with absolute certainty that the $1 million verdict is the highest in state history, he could not think of a higher one.
Tierney, Hannah and Borger all said they know of awards in the $700,000 range, but nothing to equal this one.
"If this is not the highest, it's certainly right up there," Borger said.
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281