September/October 2008

Former Congressman Gary Condit’s Defamation Suit Dismissed

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Trisha M. Rich
A federal judge in New York has dismissed a slander suit brought by former California Congressman Gary Condit, finding that the congressman failed to state an actionable claim. Condit had sued television personality and investigative journalist Dominick Dunne, claiming that Dunne had falsely accused Condit of the murder of Chandra Levy during an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
The widely publicized murder of Levy, a government intern, focused around Condit early on, after Condit acknowledged having had a sexual affair with her. Levy disappeared in May 2001 and her body was recovered a year later.
Although authorities investigated Condit, he was never charged with any criminal activity related to Levy’s disappearance and murder. Nevertheless, on November 16, 2005, Dunne appeared on “Larry King Live” and made three statements that Condit would later claim as defamatory.
First, Dunne recounted to Larry King guest host Bob Costas the “horse whisperer” story that had been the subject of an earlier lawsuit between Dunne and Condit. Early on in the Levy investigation, Dunne had received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a “horse whisperer.” The man told Dunne that he had met another man in Dubai, who had told him Levy was drugged and kidnapped by four men, who later heaved her body out of an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean. Dunne specifically stated during the broadcast that he had been “completely hoodwinked by the horse whisperer’s story,” and no longer believed that the man had any knowledge about the facts related to Levy’s disappearance.
Condit argued that Dunne’s retelling of the story constituted slander per se, and that, as a result, members of the general public were led to believe that Condit had been involved with Levy’s disappearance and murder, or that Condit knew of facts related to the crime, but had concealed the facts from the authorities. Dunne argued that these statements were not about Condit, and that no reasonable viewer would believe that the “horse whisperer” story was true.
As to Condit’s first claim, U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure of the Southern District of New York agreed with Dunne, finding that Dunne’s statements regarding the “horse whisperer” story could not lead a reasonable viewer to conclude that Dunne’s statements implied an assertion of objective facts. The court further stated that the context demonstrates that the statements were part of a discussion about inaccurate coverage and speculation by the media.
Condit also argued that two other statements were actionable. Dunne stated during the interview that Condit “knows more than he has ever told about” Levy’s murder and that Dunne thinks that Condit “knows more about what did happen than he has ever said.” Condit argued that these two statements constituted slander per se, while Dunne contended that these statements were not actionable under the First Amendment, because they did not assert or imply false assertions of fact. Dunne argued that he could not have been relying on the “horse whisperer” as the basis for his opinion, because the story was clearly false, and he had never implied that his opinions were based on any facts that had not been publicly disclosed. Condit had proffered that Dunne’s opinion statements could be reasonably understood as being based on the false “horse whisperer” story and that they implied the existence of unknown facts.
The court again sided with Dunne, finding that Dunne’s opinion statements did not, either in substance or by implication, constitute “provably false assertions of fact.” The court again stated that the totality of the circumstances demonstrated that Dunne’s statements about the “horse whisperer” were false, did not implicate Condit and did not form the basis of Dunne’s opinions. Finally, the court found that Dunne did not imply the existence of unknown facts. As a result of these findings, the court dismissed Condit’s suit.

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