‘Dateline’ wins Maine line

Defamation verdict, damages ruling thrown out

“Dateline NBC” is celebrating a legal victory.

The Peacock newsmag has been partially vindicated by the dismissal of a lawsuit over a 1995 show on tired truckers.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed on Monday a Bangor, Maine, jury’s defamation verdict and threw out $525,000 in damages. It also overturned the jury’s verdicts on plaintiff claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

In 1998, the Bangor panel ruled that the newsmag defamed trucker Peter Kennedy and the owners of trucking company Classic Carriers, Raymond and Kelly Veilleux, in a story about safety violations.

The plaintiffs accused NBC correspondent Fred Francis and freelance producer Alan Handel of misleading them into thinking they were participating in a positive story on the trucking industry. Instead, they said they were defamed by the two-part series, “Keep on Truckin’,” which depicted safety violations during a cross-country trip.

Trucking fatality

The segment was produced following a crash in which a rig driven by a trucker who falsified his logbook veered into the breakdown lane of the Maine Turnpike and killed four teenagers in a parked car.

“Dateline NBC” followed up by traveling with Kennedy, who had nothing to do with the fatal accident. The show reported that Kennedy called his logbook a “joke book” and drove from Chicago to Boston without stopping to sleep. “Dateline” also reported on the results of a drug test taken during the trip that showed residues of marijuana and amphetamines.

“Our position always was it may not have been a flattering report, but it was an accurate report,” said NBC’s attorney Bernard Kubetz.

The First Circuit Court did leave intact a limited misrepresentation claim by Ray Veilleux, as well as his wife’s claim for loss of consortium. That portion of the verdict was sent back to the U.S. District Court for reconsideration.

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