Judgment Day

After two years of litigation, a libel lawsuit against New Times is tossed out

This past week Circuit Judge Juan Ramirez, Jr., granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of New Times Newspapers of Florida, Inc., thereby ending a two-year-old libel lawsuit filed by a prominent nursery owner against the newspaper company, which owns Miami New Times. The lawsuit was filed February 14, 1994, following the publication of a story, "The Great Largo Gumbo Limbo Imbroglio," regarding a Monroe County code enforcement dispute involving Manuel Diaz, owner of the vast Manuel Diaz Farms in South Dade. The lawsuit claimed that the story, published January 5, 1994, was "false and defamatory."

"He blamed the messenger instead of the person who created the message," says attorney Sanford Bohrer, who represents New Times. "His original problem was with Monroe County, and he claimed he was mistreated by Monroe County. All we did was report what the official spokesperson said and report what was in the county's official records."

The story explained that Diaz was facing accusations that he illegally removed hundreds of gumbo-limbo cuttings from a protected forest in north Key Largo, and damaged hundreds of other plants in the process. The incident occurred in May 1993 in the North Key Largo Habitat Conservation Area, a sensitive biological ecosystem. A Monroe County biologist who investigated the case told New Times that Diaz's employees took approximately 350 gumbo-limbo cuttings and damaged at least 350 other plants by trampling a path across the property to the gumbo-limbo stand.

While some parts of the conservation area are under private ownership, strict development rules apply within its boundaries. Diaz told Monroe County officials he had received permission from a private landowner in the area to remove the gumbo-limbo plants from the property, but the officials said he never secured the necessary land-clearing permits. A Monroe official told New Times that even if Diaz had applied, he wouldn't have been given a permit because county regulations prohibited land-clearing in that particular subdivision.

An attorney representing Diaz contended that no land-clearing permits were needed because Diaz was only "pruning" the trees. The Monroe County Code Enforcement Department disagreed, issued a notice of violation to the property owners -- the Bell Family Trust -- and ordered the planting of 700 trees and shrubs at a state-owned nature preserve as a form of restitution. But after negotiations between the two sides, Monroe County reduced that number to 150. On March 2, 1994, Manuel Diaz Farms donated the trees to the state for planting at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West.

While Diaz was resolving the code-enforcement issue, he was also suing New Times. The lawsuit specifically took issue with several phrases that appeared in the story, among them "tree poacher," "raping a hammock," "felling trees in a protected area," and "leaving a path of destruction." Diaz also objected to a county biologist's characterization of him as a "dirtbag" and a "scumbucket."

In his request for summary judgment, New Times attorney Bohrer argued that aside from the phrase "leaving a path of destruction," which doesn't appear in the article, all the statements at issue were made by public officials and "simply reported, either by quotation or by paraphrase," in the newspaper. "Publication of the statements which are in the article are privileged as part of a neutral report of government actions," he wrote.

Diaz also complained that an accompanying illustration was "grossly distracted [sic] and exaggerated." The drawing depicted a path cut through dense foliage and strewn with broken twigs and branches. Bohrer argued that the cartoon qualifies as "rhetorical hyperbole" and is therefore protected by the First Amendment. In his complaint, Diaz also maintained that the article insinuated he was "poaching trees in Monroe County and selling to Dade County." In fact, the article only mentioned that in addition to his extraordinary philanthropy and high-profile private work with some of South Florida's wealthiest developers, he also had a contract to provide trees to the Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department. The article pointed out that the contract called for gumbo-limbos, among other trees.

As a result of the publication of the story, the lawsuit stated, Diaz "suffered the indignity of ridicule, damage to reputation, honesty has been questioned, standing as a citizen has been impugned, and . . . suffered great mental distress," as well as "business losses." But when questioned by Bohrer during a deposition, Diaz was hard-pressed to point out the exact injuries he suffered, monetary or otherwise. "I can assure you it didn't help me sell any trees," he noted. Diaz's trial attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

 
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