MIAMI — A savings and loan executive who claimed "20/20" portrayed him as a crook won $10 million in a libel suit Wednesday against ABC.
The seven-member federal jury concluded that the gist of the 1991 broadcast about BankAtlantic chairman and chief executive Alan Levan was false and that ABC knew it was untrue or had serious doubts about its accuracy.
The report focused on Levan and his real estate partners, who accused him of bilking them in deals that involved swapping real estate or oil holdings for bonds. The bonds eventually lost most of their value.
"This was a story in which 20 million Americans were told Alan Levan is the kind of person who you shouldn't trust with your money," said Alan Fein, Levan's lawyer. "Customers immediately came to BankAtlantic and closed their accounts, saying things like, 'He's a crook, crook, crook."
In a statement, ABC said: "We believe that the case was wrongly decided and plan to pursue our appeal rights vigorously."
"If a story like this about a serious topic done in a responsible fashion can lead to a $10-million judgment, much of broadcast news at its best would be imperiled," said ABC's attorney, 1st Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.
Levan controlled both the partnerships and the Fort Lauderdale-based savings and loan, and he was collecting a $1-million salary while BankAtlantic was losing $4 million.
BankAtlantic never collapsed, has since recovered and now is a leading bank in Miami and Fort Lauderdale with 40 branches and $2.7 billion in assets. His partners won an $8-million settlement in class-action lawsuits; no criminal charges were ever filed in connection with the bond deals.
Levan charged that he was defamed with three false statements in the first 30 seconds of the broadcast. The segment misstated Levan's role in the deals, attacked his character and used misleading editing, Fein said.
The jury ordered that ABC pay Levan $8.25 million and BankAtlantic $1 million. Producer William Willson was ordered to pay Levan $500,000 and BankAtlantic $250,000. Levan had sought $20 million.
"We were seeking an apology and a change in the way broadcast journalism is conducted," Levan said after the verdict.