MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) – The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a defamation suit filed by a firefighter naming former Fox News host Megyn Kelly as a defendant.
Aaron Marjala was a member of a Wisconsin fire department before injuring the ulnar nerve in his right arm. He was ultimately placed on disability after no jobs within the department became available to him.
Later, Marjala was classified as permanently disabled and approved for duty benefits.
Sometime after that, Marjala began competing in marathons and even an Ironman competition, eventually prompting fire department Chief Robert Whitaker to do a live TV interview with WITI that was later discussed by Kelly.
During her program, they openly called into question the merits of him being certified as disabled and strongly insinuated that the entire system for making determinations about such matters was in desperate need of reform.
Marjala's suit claimed the two, as well as show guest Lee Armstrong, all made defamatory comments about him.
In affirming the decision made the trial court, the appellate court found that the comments made by the trio were expressed as opinions and therefore insulated from any liability.
The court also ruled that Kelly’s broadcast and a related one that aired on another station both provided a full accounting of the facts of the case as they were then known, and therefore cannot be considered defamatory.
“While I am sure the plaintiff may have been embarrassed by the broadcast, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals simply followed well-established principles of defamation law,” Lee Brenner, chair of Kelley Drye & Warren Media and Entertainment practice group, told Legal Newsline.
Additionally, the court found that Kelly’s entire program constituted a smorgasbord of opinions “based on fully disclosed true or substantially true facts, rendering the opinions nonactionable.”
Brenner added, while Marjala may seek to file an appeal and push to have the case reviewed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the court is under no obligation to grant his petition.
As for Kelly being shielded from all liability, Brenner also found that decision to be in keeping with the letter of the law.
“It is widely accepted law that an expression of opinion based on disclosed true facts is not sufficient sustain an action for defamation, even when the opinion is derogatory,” he added. “The idea is that the recipient of the communication (i.e. the hearer of viewer) may choose to accept or reject the opinion based on his or her own evaluation of the facts. There can be no recovery for defamation under those circumstances.”
In the end, Brenner seemed convinced the higher court came to feel protecting the First Amendment and the right to free speech is what should be viewed as paramount.
Kelly has since left the Fox Network, signing on with NBC News where reports have her set to become the highest-paid female journalist on TV at upwards of the $20 million per year she turned down from her former employer.
She hosted the “Kelly Files” on Fox for more than 12 seasons.