Court: Dealer group not liable for ad man’s remarks

Defamation dispute
The case: Fired writer appeals dismissal of libel suit against Toledo dealers group.

The result: Court refuses to reinstate defamation claim.

The Toledo Automobile Dealers Association is not liable for allegedly defamatory statements made by the head of its advertising agency about a reporter who later was fired for unethical conduct, the Ohio Court of Appeals has ruled.

The three-judge panel refused to reinstate a libel suit against the association by Alan Abrams, who was writing about cars as a feature writer for The Blade in Toledo when the controversy surfaced. He had accepted free use of a car from Brondes Ford of Toledo for 18 months, the court said.

Donald Lea, whose agency, Donald Lea & Associates Inc., provided advertising services to the dealer group, disclosed the arrangement to Blade representatives, according to association attorney Andrew Ayers of Toledo.

The paper terminated Abrams for offering a “favorable presence” in the paper in return for use of the car and for conflict of interest based on his responsibility for preparing special automotive sections and for covering automotive issues.

Abrams denied committing any ethical breach, but an arbitrator upheld the firing.

Abrams sued the association, Lea and the agency in Lucas Court of Common Pleas. The association was dismissed from the suit, but Abrams retained his right to sue the association again. Lea and the agency went to trial but settled for $60,000 while the jury was deliberating, according to Abrams’ lawyer, Terry Lodge of Toledo.

Abrams refiled his lawsuit against the dealers association. At trial the judge dismissed the libel claims against the association before the case went to the jury. The appeals court upheld that decision, saying the arbitrator’s ruling prevents Abrams from contesting the truth of Lea’s statements.

It also said the dealers association is not liable for Lea’s statements because Lea was an independent contractor, not the association’s agent.

Lodge said his client didn’t have a full opportunity at the arbitration to present a witness to corroborate his account. He also said the dealership’s former owner had loaned Abrams the car and that Abrams had made some payments though no deal was final.

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@msu.edu
Tags: Dealers

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