e-mail us
Judge throws out Briggs & Stratton suit


A $30 million suit brought by Briggs & Stratton Corp. against the National Catholic Reporter was dismissed last week by a federal judge in Wisconsin.

The suit, which drew considerable attention in the national press, was filed after NCR published a cover story December 2, 1994, titled “Adios, American Dream.” The story chronicled the effects of layoffs at the company’s Milwaukee facility on the work force, their families and the community. An accompanying column touched upon the moral issues implicit in the company’s decision to move jobs to Mexico and other areas where cheaper labor was available at a time when the company was making record profits.

In an April 10 order granting NCR’s motion for dismissal of the case, Judge C.N. Clevert threw out claims of libel, malice and invasion of privacy made by the remaining plaintiff in the suit, George Thompson III, director of corporate communications and community relations at Briggs & Stratton.

In his ruling, Clevert said that Briggs & Stratton failed to produce any evidence that the articles in question contained any falsehoods.

Further, the judge pointed out that the paper had made repeated attempts to obtain the company’s point of view in preparing the articles but had been turned away by Thompson, the firm’s principal spokesperson.

“This is a significant victory for the kind of independent journalism that isn’t afraid to raise difficult and provocative issues,” said NCR Publisher Thomas C. Fox, who was the paper’s editor at the time the stories ran. “We knew from the outset that the suit was without merit, and Judge Clevert’s ruling is a clear vindication of that conviction.

“The suit appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to bully and intimidate the press. We are heartened that in this case the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees were upheld. We are fortunate to have had the kind of insurance that gave us access to the finest legal counsel and permitted us to withstand the prolonged drain on human energy and financial resources.

“It is unfortunate, of course, that it took nearly two years to arrive at the ruling that the case was without any merit,” said Fox.

Attorney Robert Sutton, who represented Thompson, told NCR April 15 that he disagreed with Clevert’s ruling. He said he would recommend that Thompson appeal the case, but that Thompson had not made a decision. An appeal must be made within 30 days of the ruling.

NCR was represented by attorneys Robert J. Dreps and Brady C. Williamson of Madison, Wis., and Tennyson Schad of New York.

The dismissal order, entered April 10 in the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, was the latest of three developments in the suit that was filed in June 1996. In the earliest filing, plaintiffs included Briggs & Stratton, its president John Shiely, company attorney Thomas Krukowski, as well as Thompson. The Briggs & Stratton officials charged that the article and column libeled them and invaded their privacy by publicly identifying the officials as Catholics. The column libeled them, they charged, by questioning whether moves made by the company were consistent with Catholic social teachings.

In November, Clevert ruled that NCR had not violated their privacy by reporting that the officials were Roman Catholics. Clevert also ruled at the time that the court had no jurisdiction over religious matters and so would refrain from addressing whether NCR defamed the plaintiffs by asking whether their business decisions may have been in conflict with Catholic teaching. But Clevert agreed to hear the complaints that the officials were defamed by the news account and column apart from the religious considerations. The trial was scheduled to begin April 27.

Then in December, Shiely and Krukowski filed a motion withdrawing from the suit, stating that their claim of libel had been vindicated when Clevert agreed to a trial on the issues.

At the time, Fox said, “Interestingly, Briggs & Stratton’s withdrawal comes just seven days after our attorneys filed a lengthy motion requesting dismissal of the suit based on the actual merits of the article and column in contention. It was the first time the court could actually assess what we wrote and measure it against the law. At that moment, Briggs & Stratton stepped out.”

Shiely, in a news release at the time, said that Thompson would continue to press the suit.

In the ruling granting the dismissal, Clevert said, “There is no allegation that anyone ... was misquoted.”

“In fact,” the judge continued, “it is clear that the defendants thoroughly investigated the facts underlying the articles.” He called attention to the efforts of NCR reporter Leslie Wirpsa, who wrote the articles. “Wirpsa reviewed news accounts of the controversy, spent four days in Milwaukee conducting nearly two dozen interviews and compiled an extensive file of notes and published materials which she used in writing the news articles,” the judge wrote.

The judge also noted that NCR had “repeatedly attempted to get Thompson’s comments on the story. Wirpsa requested interviews with Briggs & Stratton officials on several occasions before writing her story, but the company, by its spokesperson, Thompson, refused her requests. Neither did the company or Thompson respond to the newspaper’s requests for news releases or any other information about the company’s perspective on the controversy.”

Clevert further pointed out that NCR, before going to press with the story, “called Briggs & Stratton in an effort to ‘do anything necessary -- fly anywhere at any time’ to accommodate the company’s representative in order to get Briggs & Stratton’s side of the story. Thompson again refused comment. Based on the foregoing, this court is satisfied that there is not clear and convincing evidence that the defendants acted with actual malice.”

Briggs & Stratton officials originally had demanded that NCR publish unedited a seven-page, single-spaced letter in reaction to the story. NCR refused because the letter, according to Fox, went well beyond the scope of the story and because Briggs & Stratton officials had refused to answer questions in the preparation of the piece. Fox offered to run a shorter letter that went through the normal editing process, but Briggs & Stratton officials declined the offer.

Schad, who over the past 35 years has served as counsel for Time, Inc., and other major national publishers, commented, “This is not a legal victory, it is a foregone conclusion. They used the libel laws not to try to extract any money from NCR but rather to send a shot across NCR’s bow. Then, to put this in context, after NCR refused to retract the story it believed to be fair and accurate, their shots were aimed amidships -- they were trying to sink the paper.”

He said the suit is of interest to the wider journalism community because “it follows a recent trend where large corporations have sought to bully the press into presenting a more benign view of corporate depredations. Everybody knows that smaller publications often cannot fund very expensive litigation. So if you sue the press or you threaten to sue them, they end up faced with having to run a seven-page, single-spaced letter apologizing for the article or defending its editorial independence in a potentially ruinous litigation. It’s intimidation, and unfortunately all too often the publications have no choice but to cave.”

David Anderson, media law professor at the University of Texas, said he is not one to automatically condemn suits against the media. In today’s litigious society, he said, “I think it is kind of good for media to have to worry the way everyone else has to worry.” He said physicians who get sued sound very much like reporters who get sued; they feel their integrity has been challenged, and defending themselves takes enormous time and resources, “yet none of us thinks physicians ought to be immune.”

However, he said, “when you have a lawsuit like this that had no chance of success from the inception, there can be nothing but frustration. At the end of the day, all you can say is thank God it was dismissed, which is what should have been done the first day it was filed. Unfortunately, there is no way for the legal system to deal with it the day it was filed.”

Anderson, who reviewed the judge’s decision, called the action “a silly lawsuit as far as Thompson is concerned. It is clear he was not defamed in the story.” He said the ease with which large corporations can file suit is a “real problem for media because they have the resources and the thin skin to make life miserable for anyone who tries to report on business operations or the implications of business operations.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998