Court Throws Out Defamation Verdict Against Former Lawmaker

Jun 29, 2018

The former Democratic leader of the Kentucky Senate does not have to pay his Republican successor a $200,000 defamation judgment after a state Appeals Court ruled a TV ad he ran in 2014 was accurate and protected by the First Amendment.

R.J. Palmer lost to Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado in the 2014 election. A week before voters went to the polls, Palmer paid for a TV ad that used courtroom footage to imply Alvarado, a medical doctor, was "getting rich off addiction." The ad showed a judge lamenting how Alvarado had prescribed $3,000 worth of oxycodone to a criminal defendant.

"Oh my Lord," the judge said after the defendant told her Alvarado had supplied the drugs.

But the footage had been altered. The judge had said "oh my Lord" at the beginning of the conversation, not directly after the defendant said Alvarado's name. Also, Alvarado said the defendant had a valid prescription. Alvarado sued for defamation and in 2016 a jury unanimously ordered Palmer to pay him $200,000 in damages.

But Appeals Court judges Allison Jones, Joy Kramer and Irv Maze ruled that "merely rearranging or splicing the language in the ad does not constitute falsity."

"After watching the recorded hearing and then the commercial, it is clear without a doubt that the 'gist' of the hearing is the same as what was conveyed in the ad," the judges wrote. "The judge at the hearing clearly expressed her displeasure with Dr. Alvarado and the ad accurately reflected this."

The judges ruled the ad is "close" to portraying Alvarado in a false light, but said it is "within the bounds of a legitimate political purpose" and uses "the type of language that is allowed in robust political debate."

The case has been ongoing for nearly four years. Alvarado initially sued Palmer and his political consultant, Dale Emmons. Emmons settled the case and sent Alvarado a written apology. Palmer did not settle, and the case went to trial. A jury unanimously ruled against him.

At the time, Alvarado said the verdict was a "vindication" and hoped it would send a message to future candidates to "consider the kind of words and ads they run on others."

Friday, Alvarado did not answer a phone call seeking comment. His attorney, David Royse, was traveling and unavailable for an interview.

Palmer also declined to comment through his attorney, Barry Miller. But Miller said Palmer was "gratified" with the ruling. He noted the court did not take lightly overturning a unanimous jury verdict. But Miller said a judge should never have allowed the case to go to trial.

"The jury never should have had the burden of making this decision," Miller said.

Alvarado is finishing his first term and is running for re-election in November. His opponent is Democrat Denise Gray, a public school teacher.