The California Second District Appellate Court unanimously declined to reverse the $1.1 million verdict against online blog CalCoastNews. On Jan. 29, the court ruled 3-0 to decline the website’s invitation to reverse a ruling from 2017 in which a unanimous jury awarded licensed hazardous waste transporter Charles Tenborg damages for libel.
The court established a number of reasons the appeal was denied.
For an appeal to be heard and properly reviewed, the trial being appealed must have a complete, adequate record. For the first three days of the 2017 trial, all parties involved in the case waived a reporter. Though they hired a private court reporter to transcribe the remainder of the trial, CalCoastNews was unable to furnish a complete transcript of the trial, which included trial motions, jury selection, opening statements and testimony from Tenborg.
The lack of adequate record would come back to haunt Daniel Blackburn, co-author of a 2012 article that falsely claimed Tenborg illegally transported hazardous waste and obtained no-bid contracts to improperly haul waste. In his website’s appeal, Blackburn alleged there was no substantial evidence to support a jury ruling that he was responsible for part of the article that made claims about Tenborg. However, the appellate court correctly noted his name in the byline and his extensive involvement in the editorial review process.
Blackburn and article co-author Karen Velie claimed the court erroneously ruled that two of the contested statements about Tenborg did not fit the definition of libel per se: their claim that Tenborg had a no-bid contract and a photo of a radioactive waste drum. In their 2012 article, CalCoastNews strongly insinuated Tenborg was awarded an illegal no-bid contract. In the article, the website juxtaposed the radioactive waste drum with a quote from Tenborg indicating that he packed hazardous waste in drums, but no evidence was shown that Tenborg transported radioactive waste.
The appellate court cited the lack of an adequate record when evaluating CalCoastNews’ contention that there was a lack of evidence of malice, subjective recklessness or doubt to support damages against Velie and Blackburn.
For months leading up to the trial and after the verdict, CalCoastNews and their supporters alleged Tenborg and his “pernicious” lawsuit were part of an elaborate conspiracy to shut down the website. In their Oct. 2016 Facebook post turned advertising campaign, CalCoastNews insinuated Tenborg was responsible for the 2014 death of one of his former employees, Aaron Wynn. According to his autopsy report, Wynn suffered from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. To date, the website has not furnished evidence of these conspiracy theories.
Tenborg’s attorney James Wagstaffe, of Wagstaffe, Von Loewenfeldt, Busch, and Radwick, said in their Jan. 29 press release, “We are extremely gratified that the Court of Appeal has unanimously affirmed the jury’s well-justified defamation verdict.” Wagstaffe added, “Today’s ruling underscores that the First Amendment and its free speech protections are not a hunting license for malicious and unprofessional scandal mongers like CalCoastNews.”
CalCoastNews has not yet responded to the appellate ruling.
Read the appellate ruling below:
Tenborg v. CalCoastNews App… by on Scribd