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Larson v. Gannett Company, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

May 7, 2018

Ryan Larson, Respondent,
v.
Gannett Company, Inc., et al., Appellants.

          Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CV-15-9371

          Stephen C. Fiebiger, Stephen C. Fiebiger Law Office, Chtd., Burnsville, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Steven J. Wells, Timothy J. Droske, Angela M. Porter, Dorsey & Whitney, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellants)

          Leita Walker, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for amici curiae Star Tribune Media Company LLC, The Associated Press, Fox/UTV Holdings, LLC, The Minnesota Newspaper Association, and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press)

          Randy M. Lebedoff, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Star Tribune Media Company LLC)

          Considered and decided by Bratvold, Presiding Judge; Larkin, Judge; and Florey, Judge.

          SYLLABUS

         The fair-report privilege extends to protect news reports that accurately summarize or fairly abridge information relayed at a law-enforcement agency's official press conference or by a law-enforcement agency's official news release.

          OPINION

          BRATVOLD, Judge.

         This appeal arises from a district court decision setting aside a jury verdict and vacating the resulting judgment in a defamation suit. Appellants Multimedia Holdings Corporation d/b/a KARE 11-TV (KARE 11) and d/b/a the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud Times) (collectively, appellants) seek review of the district court's decision to grant respondent Ryan Larson a new trial.[1] Larson sued appellants for defamation based on news reports they issued about his arrest following the 2012 murder of a police officer.

         We hold (1) the fair-report privilege protected appellants' news reports that accurately summarized and fairly abridged statements made by law enforcement at an official press conference and in an official news release; and (2) the district court erred in vacating the jury's verdict that appellants' statements were not false and in ordering a new trial. Because of these determinations, we do not need to reach other issues raised by appellants. Thus, we reverse the district court's new-trial order, reinstate the jury's verdict, and remand for entry of judgment in favor of appellants.

         FACTS

         On Thursday, November 29, 2012, at approximately 11:00 p.m., Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker was shot and killed near a bar. Larson lived above the bar, and Decker was following up on a request from Larson's family to check on his welfare because he was possibly suicidal. Police arrested Larson and booked him in the Stearns County jail in connection with the murder. Larson's name and anticipated charge appeared in the jail log; similar information was in an application to detain that was signed by a judge a few days later.

         On the morning of November 30, law-enforcement officials held a joint press conference about the shooting, during which Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Deputy Superintendent Drew Evans, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, and Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones made statements and answered questions. While they stressed that the investigation was in its early stages and refused to answer some questions, they stated that police had arrested Larson and that they did not have "any information to believe" that other individuals were involved. They also said it was "apparent" that Decker was "ambushed at the scene."

         The Minnesota Department of Public Safety issued a news release on November 30, 2012, stating that "[w]ithin an hour" of the shooting a SWAT team arrested Larson, who "was booked into the Stearns County Jail on murder charges."

         Decker's shooting and the investigation that followed were "breaking news" in Minnesota. At least one television station provided live coverage of the joint press conference. While covering the shooting, KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times made 11 statements that are the focus of Larson's defamation lawsuit.

         Statements on November 30 by KARE 11

         KARE 11 covered Decker's shooting in its 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. newscasts on November 30, 2012. During the 6:00 p.m. newscast, KARE 11 reported that Decker "was shot and killed last night while conducting a welfare check on a suicidal man." The report continued: "Police say that man-identified as 34-year-old Ryan Larson- ambushed Officer Decker and shot him twice-killing him." Then, the newscast cut to a reporter who interviewed Decker's mother, and the reporter stated that Decker's mother "holds no ill-will against the man accused of killing her son." The newscast closed by saying, "Ryan Larson, the man accused of killing Officer Decker, could be charged as early as Monday." Larson's mugshot and criminal history accompanied this statement.

         During the 10:00 p.m. newscast, KARE 11 opened by stating, "Investigators say 34-year-old Ryan Larson ambushed the officer, shooting him twice. Larson is in custody." During that program, a reporter stated: "He was the good guy last night going to check on someone who needed help. That someone was 34-year-old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on Officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom." The story cut to the interview with Decker's mother, who stated: "His mind must have really been messed up to do something like that. I know Tom would have forgave him." KARE 11 ended by describing Larson's background: "He does not have an extensive criminal history, but was cited with disorderly conduct in 2009. He was a second year machine tool student at St. Cloud Tech. Larson is being held in the Stearns County Jail."

         KARE 11 also posted an article to its website, either on November 30 or December 1, which stated: "Investigators believe [Larson] fired two shots into Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, causing his death."

         Statements on December 1 by the St. Cloud Times

         On December 1, 2012, the St. Cloud Times published a story on the front page with the headline, "Man faces murder charge." The article stated: "Ryan Michael Larson, 34, is in Stearns County Jail and faces possible charges of second-degree murder. Police say Larson is responsible for the shooting death of Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker."

         Larson's Release and Statements on December 5 by the St. Cloud Times

         By December 4, 2012, investigators determined that there was insufficient evidence to further detain Larson, and released him. On December 5, 2012, the St. Cloud Times published an article about Larson's release. Referring to a community member, the article stated: "[S]he had one thing she wanted to say to Larson if she got to [sic] the chance to see him leave the jail. 'This isn't over, ' she said."

         Larson Officially Cleared as a Suspect

         After Larson's release, police continued their investigation. By January 2, 2013, Eric Thomes was the lead suspect, but he committed suicide "just hours after agents came to question him." A search of Thomes's property revealed a weapon that investigators determined was the gun that killed Decker. Investigators officially cleared Larson in August 2013.

         Procedural History

         Larson sued appellants, alleging defamation and identifying 11 statements made either by KARE 11 on November 30 or by the St. Cloud Times on December 1 and 5. The statements may be summarized into three groups. The first group of statements attributed information to what police or investigators said or believed.[2]

         1. "Police say that man-identified as 34-year-old Ryan Larson-ambushed Officer Decker and shot him twice, killing him."

         2. "Investigators say 34-year-old Ryan Larson ambushed the officer, shooting him twice. Larson is in custody."

         3. "[Decker] was the good guy last night, going to check on someone who needed help. That someone was 34-year-old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on Officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom."

         4. "Investigators believe [Larson] fired two shots into Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, causing his death."

         5. "Police say Larson is responsible for the shooting death of Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker."

         The second group of statements referred to the accusation against Larson. 6. Decker's mother "holds no ill-will against the ...


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