JUNEAU, Alaska. (Legal Newsline) – The Alaska Supreme Court handed down a decision March 17 affirming the rulings of a lower court in a case that involved a hotel and a tour company.

Ronald M. Burton initially filed suit against Fountainhead Development Inc., which owns four hotels, including Sophie Station Suites, Wedgewood Resort, Bear Lodge and the Bridgewater Hotel. Burton was hired by Princess Tours to work the 2011 tourist season as a guest service host and was placed at a Fairbanks hotel in which he had worked seasonally in the past.

The managers at the hotel recalled that Burton had been difficult to work with in previous seasons, the opinion states. 

Unable to place Burton at another hotel because he had no mode of transportation, the tour company eventually terminated his employment and allegedly made unfounded statements about Burton, the opinion states. 

Burton filed suit against the hotel for defamation and tortuous interference in his business relationship with his employer.

During a bench trial, the court found the hotel wasn’t liable for the tortious interference claim, but did find that some of the hotel’s statements were defamatory. That resulted in an award of general damages, but not special or punitive damage awards. 

Burton filed a motion to amend his original complaint and included an additional defamation claim, but that motion was denied. In the end, the court awarded $15,000 to Burton in general damages for the defamation claim, but required him to pay Fountainhead’s attorneys fees because Burton failed to accept a settlement offer that would have resulted in a higher amount for him.

Burton appealed the ruling of the lower court. However the Supreme Court of Alaska held that the lower court had acted appropriately.

The case ultimately boiled down to a “they said, we said, they thought” sort of case, which made awards and fact finding difficult. In the end, the court had to decide what had definitively resulted from Fountainhead’s statements to Princess Tours, and whether Burton’s reputation had suffered in the local tour industry.

“We appreciate the difficulty the superior court faced in having to draw a line between what it believed Burton had proven to be more likely true than not true and what remained to be proven by clear and convincing evidence. We cannot say the court clearly erred in drawing the line where it did,” said the court’s opinion.

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