Cryolab Hosting Ted Williams' Remains Loses Defamation Suit
By Michael Lipkin
Law360, Los Angeles (May 02, 2014, 3:49 PM ET) -- A New York judge on Thursday threw out a defamation suit brought by the Arizona cryogenics facility storing the remains of baseball great Ted Williams that accused an author and publishing company of spreading false and defamatory information in a 2009 tell-all book.
Justice O. Peter Sherwood granted publisher Vanguard Inc.’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the suit by Alcor Life Extension Foundation, ruling that the lab had failed to show the book was written and published maliciously. Justice Sherwood ruled that Alcor was a public figure in the field of cryonics, requiring Alcor to show the defendants acted with “actual malice.”
“While Alcor has alleged that statements in ‘Frozen’ are incorrect, Alcor has provided no evidence of either reckless disregard of the truth or actual malice,” the opinion said.
The 2009 suit was filed after former Alcor Chief Operating Officer Larry Johnson, co-author Scott Baldyga and Vanguard published “Frozen,” in which Johnson spilled what he claimed were gruesome secrets of the lab's operations, including how employees allegedly abused Williams' frozen head after his death in 2002. Alcor later settled with Johnson in 2012.
Alcor argued that the lab's inclusion in a 2003 “Sports Illustrated” article and others about Williams' preservation did not qualify it as a public figure, which would raise the standard for pursuing damages for allegedly false statements.
But Justice Sherwood found that the more than 1,000 articles written about it between 2003 and 2009 and a lawsuit from Williams’ family over his remains had given Alcor wide notoriety as a perceived cryonics leader.
Alcor took issue with 32 statements in the 400-page book, and argued that Vanguard should not have relied on Johnson as a credible source because his own manuscript shows that he is a “confessed thief and confessed liar.” The book revealed that Johnson took Alcor client files, breached confidentiality agreements, and stole photos of dead Alcor clients to post online for money.
But Vanguard only needed to show that it used reasonable methods to verify the facts in Johnson’s book, the court held, and that Johnson was a high-ranking former employee and whistleblower. There was no evidence that Vanguard knew Johnson’s statements were probably untrue, according to the opinion.
“The undisputed record reveals that Vanguard accepted the work of a credentialed author who was represented by a well-respected literary agency and who it had no reason to believe was unreliable,” the opinion said. “The issue here is the sincerity of the fact-checking, not its efficacy.”
Justice Sherwood also dismissed a claim that Vanguard aided and abetted Johnson’s breach of agreements, including those in an employee handbook and as part of a settlement in a prior lawsuit. But that claim depended on the defamation claim surviving, the court ruled.
David Korzenik of Miller Korzenik Sommers LLP, representing Vanguard, praised the decision as a "thoughtful" discussion of the actual malice standard and "how a good-faith editorial process can be relied on to protect publishers and speakers."
Representatives for Alcor did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.
The case is Alcor Life Extension Foundation Inc. v. Larry Johnson et al., case number 113938/2009, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York.
--Additional reporting by Dan Ivers. Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.