Newspaper asks judge to set aside $5 million libel award to student

VIRGINIA — A Chesapeake Circuit Court jury handed down a $5 million judgment Feb. 12 against The Virginian-Pilot and reporter Louis Hansen in a yearlong libel case.

The newspaper’s Dec. 19, 2009, story claimed Kevin Webb had bullied fellow Great Bridge High School student Patrick Bristol for years. Webb’s attorney, Jeremiah Denton III, told the jury that information was “flat-out false.”

Conrad Schumadine, attorney for the newspaper and Hansen, filed a motion to have the judgment set aside. If the judgment is upheld, Denton expects the newspaper to file an appeal.

Webb was found guilty of misdemeanor assault and trespassing after a late-night assault on Bristol’s father, Robert. Webb’s brother, Brian, was found guilty of misdemeanor assault. Both paid fines and performed community service, and Brian also received a 30-day jail sentence.

Denton said Bristol’s mother went to the newspaper because she was upset the Webbs’ convictions weren’t stronger. He said the newspaper had the basics of the story for about three-and-a-half months before the article was published, as they waited on the sentencing hearing date, and the reporter didn’t try to talk to the Webb family until they were at the hearing.

Denton said there wouldn’t have been a problem if the reporter had only published facts from Webb’s conviction and sentencing hearing, while leaving out the bullying accusations. He said the reporter also left out facts that made “the article a very slanted article.”

“On top of that, my client happened to be a pretty distinguished high school athlete,” Denton said, “and the paper made it appear that because he was a good athlete and because his father was an assistant principal in another school in the same school system that the school gave preferential treatment to Kevin and forced this other boy to leave school. None of which was true.”

Denton said this article will follow Webb around because anyone can plug his name into Google and find it.

“Reporters have a privilege to publish things that aren’t true if they’re part of legal proceedings, otherwise it’d be pretty hard to cover most trials,” Denton said. “But reporters are obliged when they do so to not deliberately slant the article and to leave out stuff that is favorable to the other side. And that’s where this reporter went wrong and that’s why the jury did what they did.”

Phone calls to Schumadine weren’t returned; however, in a story in The Virginian-Pilot, he said the article was accurate and carefully reported from interviews and court records. He also argued that damage to Webb’s reputation came from the misdemeanor assault conviction.

Denton also filed a similar suit in December on behalf of Phillip Webb, Kevin’s father, over the newspaper’s “implications that father pulled strings within the school” for his son.