Oprah defamation case can go to trial

Wed Mar 17, 2010 12:46am EDT

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey waves to people at the Main Street in Copenhagen, September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Scanpix/Jeppe Michael Jensen

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey waves to people at the Main Street in Copenhagen, September 30, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Scanpix/Jeppe Michael Jensen

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Whenever the media cover Oprah Winfrey litigation -- whether it be with poets, flight attendants, physical trainers, or diet pill makers -- it's usually with an air of dismissiveness. She's a billionaire media personality and can hire the best lawyers -- who's going to beat her in court?

Larato Mzamane, former headmistress of Winfrey's South Africa-based Leadership Academy of Girls, might have a better-than-usual chance. A jury will soon determine whether the talk-show maven defamed Mzamane.

In 2007, a group of students at Winfrey's school accused dorm parents of sexual abuse. Winfrey was intimately involved with the school and met with Mzamane, who was soon put on administrative leave pending an investigation. At the time, Winfrey released a public statement saying that "(n)othing is more serious or devastating to me than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy. I will do everything in my power to ensure their safety and well-being."

Later, Winfrey said she had "lost confidence in (Mzamane's) ability to run this school. And therefore, she will not be returning to this school."

Mzamane sued for defamation, false light and infliction of emotional distress. Winfrey then sought to have these claims dismissed on summary judgment.

But on Monday, in a 126-page decision, a Pennsylvania district court allowed the defamation and false light claims to go to trial, ruling there's "sufficient evidence in the record to satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard for actual malice."

Being associated with Oprah Winfrey has pluses and minuses, legally speaking.

On one hand, the judge found Mzamane to be a limited public figure largely on the basis of her involvement with Winfrey, which means a much higher burden for proving a defamation claim.

On the other, the judge seems to acknowledge the extraordinary power that Winfrey yields over the minds of the public. "The criticism of Plaintiff's job performance emanating from Winfrey, when received by the average listener, implies the existence of some undisclosed facts since it is reasonable to presume that Winfrey, as Plaintiff's superior, would be knowledgeable as to the substance of Plaintiff's job performance."

Winfrey's lawyers tried to present her statements as opinion, but the judge believes that without extreme discretion, she's being reckless.

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