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Westminster Libel Award Anulled

Defamation: Court overturns a verdict that awarded damages for comparing a union leader to Jimmy Hoffa.

May 22, 1999|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jimmy Hoffa can rest easy, wherever he is. Comparing a union official with the former Teamsters leader does not constitute slander, according to a ruling Friday by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ruling came in a long-running feud in Westminster. It began with a political squabble during the 1992 municipal elections and led to the dismantling of the Westminster Fire Department amid public accusations of fraud and theft by firefighters and union officials.

No criminal charges were ever filed, and five former firefighters won about $2.5 million in a federal lawsuit that accused council members and city officials of slander and of firing the firefighters in retaliation for their political activities. A federal judge later dismissed $1.1 million of the awards and reduced the rest by about half.

And former Councilman Craig Schweisinger was ordered to pay $30,000 to Paul Gilbrook, former president of firefighters union, for comparing him to Hoffa.

But the appeals court overturned the award Friday.

"[W]e believe that not all reasonable people associate the name and persona of Jimmy Hoffa with criminal activity," the court wrote. "Even those who respond negatively to the name 'Jimmy Hoffa' may be thinking of unprovable adjectives such as 'crude,' 'aggressive' or 'demagogical,' or of his fate, rather than of a fact-based trait such as 'dishonesty.' "

Besides, the court wrote, such name-calling "was the type of rhetorical hyperbole or caustic attack that a reasonable person would expect to hear in a rancorous public debate involving money, unions and politics."

Schweisinger said he was "delighted" at the ruling, which he described as affirming his right to speak openly during a public meeting.

"The Constitution wants [people] to come forward and speak what's on their minds," he said. "We want to hear the good and the bad."

The court also affirmed an earlier ruling that two of the firefighters had been fired in retaliation for their political action but overturned a ruling granting a new trial to another firefighter.

Attorneys for the firefighters could not be reach for comment.

Alison Turner, the attorney hired to represent Westminster in the appeal, said she was reviewing the 44-page opinion but described it as "not good."

"We think, with all due respect, that it's wrong" in concluding that the two firings were retaliatory, she said.

Westminster City Attorney Richard Jones said he also needed to review the decision and would discuss it with City Council members Tuesday.

"There are some issues we won and some issues we lost," he said. "We haven't figured out yet what the cost is going to be to the city."

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