Judge reduces scope of lawsuit against `Capital'

Greiber is ruled a public figure, making his case more difficult

July 08, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County judge has handed an Annapolis newspaper a pretrial victory, shrinking the scope of a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against it and making it harder for the former political candidate who filed the claim to win at trial.

In a ruling filed yesterday, Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom found that Annapolis lawyer John R. Greiber was a public figure, not a private citizen, meaning his lawyers must prove malice on the part of the newspaper. The judge reduced the number of allegedly defamatory remarks from four to one, knocking out three of the five counts against the company that publishes The Capital.

The decision pleased the newspaper, target of the lawsuit Greiber filed in November accusing The Capital of trying to smear him in 1997 and 1998 in a news story, two editorials and a conversation between one of its reporters and an unnamed county council member. The suit claimed the newspaper's words cost Greiber clients and humiliated him, and sought $3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages on each of five counts.

Neither Greiber nor his attorney returned telephone messages yesterday.

The background for the suit was set in 1994 when Greiber ran against incumbent State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, while his ally, John G. Gary, ran for county executive. Gary won, but Greiber lost. Shortly after, Greiber and the law firm he was with were hired by the county to do legal work, resulting in charges of cronyism. Greiber and Gary are Republicans; Weathersbee is a Democrat.

In 1997 and 1998, in stories about political tension between Weathersbee and Gary, The Capital made references to that issue and an editorial called Greiber "an unqualified ally to whom Mr. Gary continues to feed county legal business." Greiber sued.

After yesterday's ruling, the two counts of the suit that survive are an allegation of defamation and presenting Greiber in a false light. Caroom eliminated accusations of abuse of privilege accorded the press, negligence and inflicting emotional distress. The trial is scheduled for January.

"We maintained all along that he was a public figure," Edward D. Casey, executive editor of The Capital, said after the ruling.

The distinction is important, said Eric Easton, of the University of Baltimore School of Law. "If you are a public figure, then the plaintiff has to prove actual malice," Easton said. "If you are not a public figure, he only has to prove the paper was negligent."

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