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St. Louis solo nabs $10M verdict in Fla. libel case

Allison Retka//September 4, 2009

St. Louis solo nabs $10M verdict in Fla. libel case

Allison Retka//September 4, 2009

A St. Louis lawyer has won a $10 million jury verdict in Florida in a libel suit against The St. Petersburg Times.

Solo practitioner Ira Berkowitz represented a doctor, Harold Kennedy, who sued the newspaper for libel in 2005 over three articles about Kennedy’s departure from a position at a Veterans Affairs medical center near Tampa.

The articles described allegations that Kennedy was under investigation for illicit activities. Kennedy maintained the allegations were not true.

After a weeklong trial in Pinellas-Pasco County Circuit Court, the jury deliberated for less than two hours and returned its verdict on Aug. 28, awarding Kennedy $5.14 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

Berkowitz tried the case alongside Timothy W. Weber, a St. Petersburg attorney with Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein.

The paper will appeal the verdict, said Andrew Corty, vice president of the Times Publishing Co., which owns The
St. Petersburg Times.

“We are very disappointed by the verdict,” Corty said, referencing a written statement. “The Times continues to believe our reporting and editing of these stories met the highest journalistic and ethical standards.

“In the end the Times’ reporting will be vindicated,” Corty said, noting the paper picked up two Pulitzer Prizes in 2009 in the national reporting and feature reporting categories.

The articles’ writer, Paul de La Garza, died of a heart attack in 2006 at age 44.

The St. Petersburg attorney for the newspaper, Alison Steele, was out of the office Friday and not available for comment.

In closing statements to the jury, Steele said the plaintiff failed to prove that the stories were false, and she said that all the statements in the articles were true, The
St. Petersburg Times reported on Aug. 29.

The articles damaged Kennedy’s career, and he was unable to find work as a professor at any American medical schools, said Berkowitz, his St. Louis attorney.

Berkowitz described his client as a prolific writer, researcher and educator who, after the Sept. 11 attacks, sought work at the VA hospital as a patriotic act.

“I feel very confident we’ll keep this verdict,” Berkowitz said.

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