Judge dismisses lawsuit against Sun


Published: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

A judge dismissed a case this week that had been filed by local developer Clark Butler against The Gainesville Sun and the newspaper's parent company, The New York Times Co., alleging he was portrayed in a false light by the newspaper.

In a written decision, Circuit Judge Toby Monaco found that claims made in the lawsuit were subject to a two-year statute of limitations that had expired and that pre-suit notice should have been made in the case.

Monaco wrote that "the complaint should be treated as a libel claim, and is subject to the two-year statute of limitations as well as the notice requirements."

The claims in the lawsuit, filed in May 2005, had been based on several articles and one cartoon sketch published in the newspaper from Nov. 5, 2002, through Feb. 19, 2005, the judge's decision stated. The items referred to matters concerning a potential road project in Gainesville near the Butler Plaza shopping center.

Butler, in the lawsuit, claimed the publications had been "worded in such a way" that they portrayed him as trying to influence or bribe people regarding the road project, the judge's order stated. Those portrayals damaged his personal and business reputation, according to the lawsuit.

Cindy Swirko, a reporter at The Sun, and Janine Young Sikes, who was a reporter at the time and now is an editor, also were named in the lawsuit.

Monaco based his decision on a 2006 1st District Court of Appeals ruling in a case involving the Pensacola News Journal and businessman Joe Anderson Jr., the founder of a road paving company, and contracts the company had obtained.

Anderson had brought a false-light claim against the newspaper over an account that he had shot and killed his wife while deer hunting. The article, two sentences later, said law enforcement had determined the incident was a hunting accident. Anderson claimed the report had portrayed him in a false light by implying he had killed his wife and "gotten away with it," according to the court's opinion.

The appellate court found that a two-year statue of limitations, instead of a four-year period, applied in the Anderson case.

"We're very pleased," said Gainesville attorney Larry Turner about the judge's decision.

Turner is one of the attorneys representing The Sun and The New York Times Co.

"We think it's the correct ruling on the law. We think it's the appropriate First Amendment protection for the news media," he said.

Attorney Tricia "CK" Hoffler, an attorney for Butler, said, "We are going to take this matter further and explore any and all options that are available to Mr. Butler so he can have his day in court.

"We have infinite respect for Judge Monaco and for his decision, but we also appreciate that the Florida Supreme Court is going to have to make a final determination on the status of Florida's false light laws," said Hoffler, a partner in the Willie Gary law firm in Stuart.

The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the Anderson case later this year, both attorneys said.

Lise Fisher can be reached at 352-374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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