Opening statements in Dominion defamation case against Fox delayed

WILMINGTON, Delaware, April 18 (Reuters) – Opening statements to a jury from lawyers for both sides in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox Corp ( FOXA.O ) and Fox News were delayed on Tuesday. Allegations of fraudulent voter fraud in the 2020 US election, no grounds announced by court.

After a one-day delay ordered Monday by Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis in Wilmington, attorneys for both sides selected a 12-person jury to hear the case Tuesday. But opening statements did not take place as planned on Tuesday afternoon.

No reasons were given for the delay, but two sources previously told Reuters that Fox and Dominion were holding last-minute settlement talks.

The jury was chosen in the trial to determine whether one of the world’s largest media companies defamed Dominion by broadcasting false claims that its vote-counting machines were used to manipulate Republican then-President Donald Trump in favor of Democrat Joe Biden in that election.

In the courtroom earlier in the day, Davis asked lawyers on both sides to move quickly through what he said would be a six-week trial.

“We’re going to stick to it. I’m not going to give you more time,” the judge said.

Davis told jurors they had to “struggle with human nature” and not discuss the case with anyone. “That’s the hardest thing you have to do during a trial,” the judge said.

The primary question for jurors is whether Fox knowingly spread false information or ignored the truth, the “actual harm” standard that Dominion must show to win a defamation case. Dominion alleges, based on multiple internal communications, that Fox employees, from newsroom staff all the way up to Murdoch, knew the reports were false but continued to air them for fear of losing viewers to media rivals on the right.

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Dominion sued Fox Corp. and Fox News in 2021, claiming its business was ruined by false vote-rigging claims aired by the influential U.S. cable news network known for its roster of conservative commentators.

About 200 people thronged the court premises. Journalists and members of the public started lining up outside the court hours before the court opened. A protester in front of the building held up a sign reading “Fox Convict”.

Fox Corp shares were down about 0.5% at 33.82 in afternoon trading. The stock is up about 10% this year. Fox Corp had annual revenue of nearly $14 billion last year.

Big names on the witness stand

The hearing is set to feature testimony from Fox CEO Suzanne Scott and 92-year-old media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who serves as Fox Corp. chairman, along with on-air hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Brough.

The trial was originally scheduled to begin on Monday, but the judge delayed it by a day, though no reason was given. Fox and Dominion are holding last-minute settlement talks, two sources told Reuters. Fox and Dominion could still settle the case.

The trial is seen as a test of whether Fox’s coverage crosses the line between ethical journalism and the pursuit of ratings, as Dominion alleges and Fox denies. Fox has portrayed himself as a defender of press freedom in the pre-trial standoff.

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Adding to the legal risks for Fox, another US voting technology company, Smartmatic, has filed its own defamation suit in New York state court seeking $2.7 billion in damages.

Ahead of lawsuits seeking to hold directors liable for any judgment or settlement, Fox Corp shareholders are seeking company records that would show whether directors and executives properly monitored Fox News coverage of Trump’s election fraud claims, sources told Reuters.

Fox Dominion’s $1.6 billion in damages is unrealistic and based on flawed economic modeling. An expert report commissioned by Dominion attributes the lost contracts to Fox’s coverage, though much of the report remains under seal.

After being sworn in, one of the chosen alternate umpires yelled, “I can’t do this.” Davis replaced the man. A judge throws a man out of court for taking a photo.

Dominion last week accused Fox of failing to comply with certain evidentiary obligations in the case. Davis on Tuesday appointed an independent arbitrator, a special master, to investigate and report back to the judge by May 15.

Reporting by Helen Koster in Wilmington and Jack Quinn in New York; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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