Dominion wins partial victory in defamation lawsuit against Fox News as case heads to high-profile jury trial

A Delaware judge has denied a motion for summary judgment from Fox News in a defamation case brought against the company from Dominion Voting Systems, the subject of baseless conspiracy theories tied to the 2020 presidential election that made their way on the network’s airwaves.

A ruling in Delaware Superior Court on 31 March grants Dominion a partial victory in its motion for summary judgment in the blockbuster, $1.6bn lawsuit against the network, which the judge determined broadcast false statements.

Both sides sought a pretrial ruling from Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis to declare them the winner and avoid a high-profile trial, which will begin next month. Jury selection is scheduled for 13 April.

In a partial ruling in Dominion’s favour, the court determined that statements made on Fox News were presented as statements of fact, not statements of opinion, for which Fox News is responsible. But the court left open whether a jury would find its parent company Fox Corporation responsible.

The court also determined that Dominion is entitled to summary judgment for its defamation claims, but it will be up to the jury to determine whether “actual malice” is involved, the legal standard established by the US Supreme Court in defamation cases involving public figures alleged to have knowingly presented false claims or made them with reckless disregard for the truth.

“Through its extensive proof, Dominion has met its burden of showing there is no genuine issue of material fact as to falsify. Fox therefore had the burden to show an issue of material fact existed in turn. Fox failed to meet its burden,” the judge ruled in part.

“The evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that is CRYSTAL clear that none of the Statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true,” he added. “Therefore, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of Dominion on the element of falsity.”

It will be up to a jury, then, to determine whether Fox News defamed Dominion by repeatedly platforming false claims that the company manipulated the outcome of the 2020 presidential election to ensure Donald Trump’s loss.

The network and Fox Corporation have repeatedly denied wrongdoing and argued that statements on air were protected by the First Amendment and, because they were supported by the former president in his spurious efforts to overturn election results, those claims were newsworthy.

“This case is and always has been about the First Amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news,” a Fox spokesperson said in a statement shared with The Independent. “Fox will continue to fiercely advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of these proceedings.”

A statement from Dominion said the company looks forward to a trial, and is “gratified by the court’s thorough ruling soundly rejecting all of Fox’s arguments and defenses, and finding as a matter of law that their statements about Dominion are false.”

Private admissions detailed in court filings show text messages, emails and sworn testimony among Fox News personalities and executives questioning or ridiculing unreliable guests and dubious arguments about the company and the 2020 election while at the same time conceding that publicly rejecting those claims would risk alienating Fox viewers.

The behind-the-scenes revelations, stitched together in Dominion’s sprawling case alleging a media empire that relies on lying to its audience, has painted a much-larger picture of the Fox organisation, its decision making, and its concerns over declining viewership with competition from other right-wing networks that indulged the former president’s conspiracy theories.

In legal briefs, attorneys for Fox News have argued that news organisations have an obligation to air newsworthy allegations, especially those from a sitting president.

The hurdles for “actual malice” are outlined in Supreme Court precedent established in The New York Times v Sullivan, a landmark press freedom case from 1964 that has also been at the centre of right-wing attacks on the media, including recent lawsuits from Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, who have sought to strip that precedent, rather than defend it, in the case of Fox News.