WILMINGTON, Delaware, April 18 (Reuters) – Fox Corp ( FOXA.O ) and Fox News have settled a defamation lawsuit over Dominion Voting Systems, a judge in the case said on Tuesday, blocking a high-profile hearing in the world. Leading media outlets reporting on claims of fraudulent vote-rigging in the 2020 US election.
The decision, the terms of which were not immediately released, was announced at the 11th hour, with a 12-member jury selected Tuesday morning and the case set to begin with opening statements Tuesday afternoon. Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion in damages in a 2021 lawsuit presided over by Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis in Wilmington.
Davis ordered a one-day adjournment of the hearing before Tuesday’s adjournment, apparently after the two sides struck a deal.
The deal avoids the risk of being put on the witness stand and facing trial from executives including Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old media mogul who serves as Fox Corp. chairman, and some of Fox’s most famous people. CEO Suzanne Scott and on-air hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Brough.
The decision to settle follows a judge’s ruling that Fox cannot claim free speech protections under the U.S. Constitution in its defense.
At issue in the case was whether Fox was responsible for airing false claims that Denver-based Dominion’s vote-counting machines were used against then-Republican President Donald Trump in favor of Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 US election. Dominion argued that these on-air claims caused “substantial and irreparable economic harm” to the company.
According to Nielsen, Fox News is the most-watched American cable news network.
The primary question for jurors will be whether Fox knowingly spread false information or ignored the truth, the “actual malice” standard that Dominion must show to win a defamation case. Based on multiple internal communications, Dominion alleges that Fox employees, from newsroom staff all the way up to Murdoch, knew the reports were false but continued to air them for fear of losing viewers to media rivals on the right.
Adding to the legal risks for Fox, another US voting technology company, Smartmatic, has filed its own defamation suit in New York state court seeking $2.7 billion in damages. Fox Corp had annual revenue of nearly $14 billion last year.
In February court filings, Dominion cited internal communications in which Murdoch and other Fox executives privately acknowledged that Dominion’s on-and-off vote-rigging claims were false. Dominion said Fox inflated the false claims to boost its ratings and prevent its audience from migrating to other media rivals on the right, including One America News Network, which is suing separately.
Fox has argued that Trump and his lawyers’ claims about the election are inherently newsworthy and protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Davis ruled in March that Fox could not use those arguments, saying its coverage was false, defamatory and not protected by the First Amendment.
Dominion sued Fox Corp. and Fox News in 2021, claiming its business was ruined by false vote-rigging claims aired by the influential U.S. cable news network known for its roster of conservative commentators.
The test should be whether Fox’s coverage crosses the line between ethical journalism and ratings pursuit, as Dominion alleges and Fox denies. Fox portrayed himself as a defender of press freedom in the pre-trial standoff.
The complaints mention instances where Trump associates, including his former lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, appeared on Fox News to make false allegations about Dominion.
Dominion obtained insider communications and testimony from Murdoch and other Fox News executives and commentators. Murdoch described the election fraud claims as “truly crazy” and “damaging,” but refused to use his editorial authority to block them and admitted under oath that some Fox hosts had “supported” the unsubstantiated claims, Dominion filed in court. .
When Murdoch saw what Giuliani and Powell were saying about Dominion on November 19, he filed them to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott as “terrible things that will damage everybody, I’m afraid.”
Under questioning by a Dominion attorney, Murdoch testified that he thought everything about the election was “over-the-top” and that he suspected fraud claims from the beginning, according to Dominion’s filing.
Asked if he could have intervened to stop Giuliani from continuing to spread false news on air, Murdoch replied, “I could. But I didn’t,” the filing said.
Reporting by Helen Koster in Wilmington and Jack Quinn in New York; Editing by Will Dunham
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