One for Us

Appeals court grants judgment in libel suit

A three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeals has granted the Dallas Observer summary judgment in a libel suit brought by restaurateur Dale Wamstad. That means we won, though it's too soon to tell whether Wamstad will appeal.

This is good news for Buzz, since we edited the story, written by Mark Stuertz. It was a profile of the controversial steak-house maven that was headlined "Family Man: Dallas restaurateur Dale Wamstad portrays himself as humble entrepreneur and devoted father. The family he abandoned in New Orleans has a bone to pick with that." Wamstad had a bone to pick with the story, published March 16, 2000, which detailed his troubled former family life and history of disgruntled ex-business partners.

The appeals panel ruled that Wamstad was a public figure, which means that to win a libel case he had to prove the Observer knowingly published false statements or with reckless disregard of whether they were false.

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Wamstad contested the Observer's claim that he was a public figure, but the appeals court rejected his argument, noting Wamstad's history of flamboyant appearances in various media, both over his business practices and his former marriage to Lena Rumore Waddell. Waddell was tried in New Orleans at one point for shooting Wamstad but claimed self-defense and was acquitted. The story recounted that case and claims by her and the couple's son Roy Wamstad that Dale Wamstad was physically abusive. "In sum, the media coverage of Wamstad over the past 15-plus years has been substantial and considerably focused on Wamstad's personality, with Wamstad himself participating in the media discussion..." the court's opinion states. "...Through his promotion of his family-man image in his advertising over the years, Wamstad voluntarily sought public attention, at the very least for the purpose of influencing the consuming public."

The fact that Wamstad denied the abuse and disagreed that his former wife acted in self-defense in shooting him was not evidence that the Observer believed her claims were false and published them anyway, the opinion states.

In its defense, Stuertz and the Observer's editors testified that Stuertz did a great amount of legwork to corroborate the claims about Wamstad made by various sources. As the appeals court noted: "In an extensive affidavit, Stuertz stated the following, among others things: In researching for the article, he interviewed at least 19 people, reviewed numerous court documents (listing 57 documents), court transcripts and numerous newspaper articles concerning Wamstad (listing 48 newspaper articles). Most, if not all the statements about Wamstad in the article were corroborated, either by prior sworn court testimony or by other witnesses, and based on the similarity of assertions made by the sources, he did not doubt the credibility of any of his sources, including Rumore and Roy Wamstad."

And that--so far, at least--is that. And if regular Buzz readers are wondering where all the usual snarky comments are this week, allow us to refer you to our lawyers.

 
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