Defamation Case Study: Mitre v. HBO

Mitre v. HBO defamation lawsuitTyrion Lannister’s trial is over, but HBO’s still got a high-profile defamation lawsuit to conquer — the Mitre Sports v. HBO slander battle. Current Advantage: Mitre.

The Players In This Sports Defamation Lawsuit

Mitre Sports International

Mitre is a sports equipment manufacturer. The company is the exclusive soccer (football) ball sponsor of the English Premier League and Major League Soccer.

Home Box Office (HBO)

HBO is a cable network that produces a program called Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.

Back In 2008, HBO Aired A Special That Didn’t Paint Mitre In The Best Light

In 2008, HBO aired a Real Sports segment featuring Mitre called “Childhood Lost.” A heart-wrenching tale, “Childhood Lost” highlighted the hardships of kid labor in India. It began:

“We start with a sobering look at a practice that is clearly illegal, and was supposedly done away with years ago, and that’s child labor.”

Later in the broadcast, the reporter (not Gumbel) lamented:

“In the slums of India, children as young as six spend their days crouched on dirt floors stitching soccer balls together.”

Kailash Satyarth – a child rights advocate – added her sobering thoughts:

“They have no childhood. They have no freedom.”

Scenes of young children, supposedly stitching soccer balls for 5 cents an hour, added to the overall misery of the TV segment.

Good on HBO for exposing Mitre! Right?

Not so fast.

Today’s TV news producers aren’t exactly beholden to the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I know, I know – it’s shocking – but some TV-news producers have been known to bend the facts for ratings. (#sarcasm)

Mitre to HBO: You Egregiously Misrepresented Us, And You Know It; Prepare For A Defamation Battle.

Needless to say, Mitre was none too pleased with HBO’s Real Sports segment. In response to the show, the soccer ball company alleged misrepresentation. It argued that:

  1. The children shown “working” in the streets for 5 cents were not working for the company; they were helping their parents – a commonplace Indian value/tradition.
  2. Some of the children on film were not even stitching, but instead engaging in other activities that looked like stitching.
  3. Some of the scenes were staged.

Mitre didn’t waste time. The sports corporation quickly filed a defamation lawsuit against HBO. It accused the cable network of:

“intentionally and maliciously [perpetrating] a hoax on Mitre and the millions of viewers who watched the initial and subsequent HBO broadcasts and who have viewed the program on YouTube and other internet sites.”

Pre-Trial Litigation Information Could Help Mitre Win

It’s been six years since Mitre v. HBO kicked off. (Gigantic corporations, with in-house legal teams, tend to go at it for years; normal business defamation lawsuits wrap up much quicker.) Both parties are on the motion-and-hearing hamster wheel – trying to out-litigate each other – and during that time, interesting facts have percolated to the surface. For example:

  1. An HBO researcher testified that she couldn’t find a kid, in the neighborhood in question, who was under the age of 14, that “could stich a football.”
  2. Mitre presented evidence that HBO had, itself, questioned whether or not the scenes of the kids sewing soccer balls was “a product of Indian society, not necessarily an evil soccer ball company looking for balls on the cheap.”
  3. Some of the children that appeared on the program have since said that they were “induced to pretend to stich Mitre balls on camera and that those scenes were staged.”

But WAIT! There’s Another Twist; HBO May Have a Point

So far, HBO has argued substantial truth. The Network also contends that despite the bluster, Mitre has yet to pinpoint a specific defamatory statement. Touche.

And HBO may have a valid point. Especially since they littered the TV segment with disclaimers. For example, at one point in the program, the anchor said he didn’t “believe that Mitre wants it to happen, but that the subcontractors are a different story altogether.”

Judge Says The Trial Must Go On

The disclaimers, however, was not enough to convince the judge to toss the defamation case. Instead he reasoned:

“Because there are no undisputed facts in the record that establish what statements, if any, are defamatory, this Court cannot make any determinations on this issue as a matter of law. Rather, it is for the jury to determine first what the gist of the Segment is, and second, whether any statements therein are defamatory.”

Big Company Mitre Is Not A Public Figure

Under U.S. defamation law, different rules apply to different types of plaintiffs. Normal Joes and Janes only have to prove negligence in slander and libel lawsuits. Public figures (e.g., celebrities, famous people, politicians, etc.) however, have to prove actual malice.

Actual malice is harder to prove than negligence because the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant knowingly lied or, at least, did an abysmal job in gathering the information.

Whether or not a plaintiff is labeled a public figure depends on several factors:

  1. The Jurisdiction – Different states have different rules about who qualifies as a “public figure.” For example, some states say that anybody employed by the government is a public figure – including public school teachers.
  2. Case Facts – The facts of a case can play a big role in determining whether or not an individual or business is considered a public figure for the purposes of a defamation lawsuit.
  3. Case Law – In most circumstances, a plaintiff does not want to be deemed a “public figure” because actual malice cases are harder to win than negligence-standard slander and libel lawsuits.

Big Corporations Usually Considered Public Figures in Defamation Lawsuits – But Not In This One

Nine times out of 10, multinational corporations are considered “public figures” for the purposes of a defamation lawsuit. But Mitre’s lawyers managed to wrestle a favorable status assessment out of the judge, who assessed:

“the evidence shows that Mitre does not approach the status of being a household name or a celebrity in the community. First, Mitre has not sponsored any teams or leagues in the United States since 1999. Furthermore, Mitre’s sale and advertising of sports equipment is insufficient to make it a general purpose public figure.”

The judge also rationalized that Mitre was not a “limited-purpose” public figure because, in general, American citizens don’t feel the same way about soccer as they do baseball. As a result, “Mitre” isn’t exactly a household name in the United States – thereby disqualifying the sports company as a “public figure” for the purposes of this defamation lawsuit.

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Mitre v. HBO is not over yet – and we’ll be keeping an eye on this high profile defamation lawsuit.

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