Fox Disputes Possible Damages as Judge Delays Defamation Trial
Fox News has disputed the damages it may have to pay if the company is found liable in a highly anticipated defamation trial over the spread of misinformation after the 2020 presidential election, just as the judge in the case pushed back the start of the case by a day.
The postponement of the trial, and Fox’s claims about the possible damages, were the latest twists in the case. Late Sunday, Judge Eric M. Davis said the proceedings would continue on Tuesday. He did not give a reason then or in his brief remarks from the bench just after 9 a.m. on Monday.
“This does not seem unusual to me,” Judge Davis said, explaining that he had rarely been part of a trial that did not have some kind of delay. “I am continuing the matter until tomorrow.”
It is not uncommon for adversaries in a trial with such significant damages at stake to seek last-minute settlement talks.
However, three people directly involved in the case said they did not expect the parties to settle. Lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems, which brought the suit against Fox, were filing requests with the court on Monday morning, an indication that they expected the case to go to trial on Tuesday.
What to Know About Dominion Voting Systems
Dominion set the financial penalty in the case at $1.6 billion. But a dispute over that number erupted after Fox disputed Dominion’s worth, pointing to a recent legal filing by Dominion in which it lowered part of its request for damages.
“Fox has made clear that Dominion’s damages are wildly inflated,” a Fox spokeswoman said.
But damages are at the discretion of the jury and could be higher.
A Dominion spokeswoman disputed Fox’s characterization of its court filing. “The damages claim remains,” she said. “As Fox well knows, our damages exceed $1.6 billion.”
The reason a settlement has been elusive so far is not just monetary. Fox, one of the most profitable media companies, would have to issue an apology to Dominion under the terms Dominion would accept, according to several people familiar with the limited settlement discussions that had taken place in previous months.
But doing so would come at a significant reputational cost to Fox News, which has continued to air programs casting doubt on the culpability of Trump supporters in the riots of Jan. 6, 2021.
At the same time, both sides have some incentive to reach a deal. Fox may want to avoid a trial in which more embarrassing or damaging details about its operations could emerge. And Dominion may want to secure some financial payment, and avoid fighting years of appeals that would probably take place if it won the jury trial.
The case has opened an unprecedented window into the inner workings of the country’s leading conservative news network. In the run-up to trial, Fox handed over tens of thousands of emails and text messages exchanged among its hosts, producers and executives. Many of them revealed that there was widespread doubt inside the network over former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims that he had been cheated of victory.
The case is considered a landmark test of First Amendment protections for the press and has been closely watched by legal and media analysts. Dominion’s voting machines became the focus of pro-Trump conspiracy theories that wrongly implicated the company’s technology in a fictitious plot to flip votes from Mr. Trump to President Biden.
Fox News v. Dominion Voter Systems
On Monday, the courtroom was filled with reporters from around the world awaiting word on when they could expect to hear opening statements from both parties and the reason for the delay.
Boldface names from Fox News — hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo, along with Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls the Fox media empire — are expected to testify if the case goes to trial.
Dominion Voting Systems, an elections technology company, filed the libel lawsuit against Fox in early 2021, claiming that Fox hosts and guests repeatedly uttered lies about its role in a fictitious plot to steal the election despite knowing the claims, which had been pushed by Mr. Trump and his supporters, were not true.
Fox has said it was reporting on newsworthy allegations involving a presidential election and insisted that its broadcasts were protected under the First Amendment as commentary and news.
But Fox has faced a number of setbacks in its legal case. Judge Davis ruled in pretrial hearings that the claims about Dominion were false and that the jury would need to consider only the question of whether Fox had knowingly broadcast them anyway. The judge also set boundaries on the First Amendment defenses that Fox could rely on, ruling that it could not use free speech protections because the statements were false.
In emailed statements over the weekend, both parties appeared ready to move ahead to trial.
“In the coming weeks, we will prove Fox spread lies causing enormous damage to Dominion,” a Dominion spokeswoman said. “We look forward to trial.”
A Fox spokeswoman said the network “remains steadfast in protecting the rights of a free press, given a verdict for Dominion and its private equity owners would have grave consequences for the entire journalism profession.”