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Fourth Circuit Finds No Defamation for Inaccurate Media Reporting of Criminal Record of Former Federal Prisoner in West Virginia

After a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners at a Massey Energy Company coal mine in West Virginia, CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety regulations and laws. Though the charge was a misdemeanor, he was sentenced to one year in prison, plus a year on supervised release, and he was fined $250,000. After the sentence was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) refused his appeal. See: United States v. Blankenship, 846 F.3d 663 (4th Cir. 2017); and Blankenship v. United States, 583 U.S. 915 (2017).

The year after his release from federal prison, with no apparent sense of moral decorum, Blankenship ran as a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia. Other prominent Republicans, including then-Pres. Donald J. Trump, criticized his campaign and supported another candidate. Blankenship lost the primary and was unable to get on the ballot in the general election. But during his campaign a number of media agencies and reporters incorrectly described Blankenship as a “felon” or “convicted felon.”

He filed suit in 2019, claiming defamation, civil conspiracy and false light invasion of privacy, naming over 100 journalists, Political Action Committees and news outlets ranging from CNN to Fox News Network. All but 16 Defendants were dismissed by the federal court for the Southern District of West Virginia, which then granted summary judgment against Blankenship.

He appealed, and on February 22, 2023, the Fourth Circuit affirmed. After individually examining the incorrect statements made by remaining Defendants, the appellate court found that Blankenship had failed to prove defamation, as the news organizations and reporters had not acted with actual malice—the standard he had to meet as a public figure.

Under West Virginia law, actual malice requires a showing that a false statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” During discovery, Defendants testified that they were unaware of inaccuracies in their remarks about Blankenship’s criminal record. While some publishers declined to issue corrections after learning the truth, that had “little to no relevance in the actual malice inquiry,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The fact that Blankenship had received one year in prison—which he admitted “was a highly unusual sentence for a misdemeanor offense”—tended to show that Defendants’ statements, though false, were due to mistake or inadvertence and not deliberate. While they may have been negligent, that did not rise to the level of malice.

Accordingly, the district court’s grant of summary judgment to remaining Defendants was affirmed. A petition for a writ of certiorari from SCOTUS to hear a further appeal was denied on October 10, 2023. See: Blankenship v. NBCUniversal, LLC, 60 F.4th 744 (4th Cir. 2023); and 144 S. Ct. 5 (2023).

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Related legal case

Blankenship v. NBCUniversal, LLC