Oprah Winfrey appears set for another defamation trial — this time in Philadelphia where she has been sued by Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane, former headmistress of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Mzamane claims that Oprah defamed her in speaking about a sex-abuse scandal at the school that she created.
Mzamane is seeking $12 million dollars for the comments. Winfrey suggested during the meeting with parents and a subsequent satellite news conference that Mzamane was not trustworthy and tried to cover up the abuse. Oprah said “I trusted her. When I appointed her, I thought she was passionate about the children of Africa . . . but I have been disappointed.” She promised parents promised to “clean house from top to bottom” and specifically promised not to renew Mzamane’s $150,000-a-year contract. She said that the school official decided to “put on happy faces and to never complain to me” when she visited. As a result she said “I feel that the girls were placed in an atmosphere where they were taught to be fearful and they were taught to, literally, be silenced. And so, when you remove the systems and put in a different kind of leadership, all that will change.”
In a 128-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno refused to dismiss the action, holding “[t]he implication that [Mzamane] was aware of abuse . . . ascribes conduct which would render her unfit for her profession as an educator.”
In October 2007, Virginia “Tiny” Makopo was charged with 13 counts of indecent assault, assault, and criminal injury. The dorm matron’s alleged victims included the girls and a 23-year-old coworker.
Over a dozen years ago, Oprah defeated a roughly $12 million suit from Texas cattlemen who claimed she defamed beef. It was a case that I thought was uniquely and would not have likely gone to trial in many other states. Ironically, Mzamane is seeking the same amount. The Cattlemen sued over brief comments Oprah made on a show about Mad Cow disease. On the show broadcast on April 16, 1996, Winfrey told her studio audience and television viewers that her guests comments “just stopped me cold from eating another burger.”
In the opinion, the court has to deal first with a conflict between Illinois and Pennsylvania law. Illinois recognizes the “innocent construction rule” that states “even if a statement falls into one of the categories of words that are defamatory per se, it will not be actionable per se if it is reasonably capable of an innocent construction.” Tuite v. Corbitt, 866 N.E.2d 114, 121 (Ill. 2006). Pennsylvania does not have such a rule and the court ruled that Pennsylvania should win in the conflict due to the domicile rules.
With that conflicts ruling and the general rule favoring the non-moving party, it was enough to reject Oprah’s motion.
For example, here is the analysis on one of the comments addressed by the court:
(8) I’m going to find [sic] a new head of the academy for the school. I’m going to involve the parents, and involve the girls themselves in creating the discipline process because as I’ve said to them: dorm parents are gone, [Plaintiff] is gone.
The Court concludes that this statement is capable of defamatory meaning on the basis of defamation by innuendo. It is true that the thrust of this statement merely describes Winfrey’s thoughts on her approach to finding a new head of academy for OWLAG and instituting a new disciplinary process. Although it is undisputed that Plaintiff was no longer employed by OWLAG at the time this statement was made, the critical point in determining whether this statement constitutes defamation by innuendo is that Plaintiff’s removal is grouped together with the removal of the Dorm Parents. A fair reading of Winfrey’s statement is that the disciplinary process which previously [*80] existed was defective, and that both the Dorm Parents and Plaintiff were removed as a result of this deficiency. Based on the backdrop in which the October Meeting was held, i.e., discussing allegations of physical and sexual abuse, the innuendo created by this statement is that Plaintiff and the Dorm Parents were both culpable in the breakdown of OWLAG. Again, the import of this statement is that Plaintiff played some role in the mistreatment of the students, which clearly would tend to “blacken” Plaintiff’s reputation or injure her in her profession. See Joseph, 959 A.2d at 334. Therefore, this statement is capable of defamatory meaning.
What is notable is that the Court held against Oprah even though it found Mzamane to be a limited public figure — putting her under a more difficult standard under Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974) and New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). This will mean, however, the application of an actual malice standard that will make the trial more difficult for the Plaintiff.
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