Jurors found a reporter liable in a $7.5 million libel lawsuit Friday that accused Rolling Stone magazine of defaming a university administrator in a now-discredited story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.
The jury deliberated for nearly three days before handing down the verdict against reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and in favor of University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo, who asked for $7.5 million in her lawsuit against the 48-year-old magazine.
The magazine and its parent company Wenner Media, which were named alongside Erdely in the lawsuit, were also found liable for defamation with actual malice on serveral counts, according to NBC29 reporter Henry Graff.
Eramo alleged that she was unfairly portrayed in a 2014 story called “A Rape on Campus,” which described the alleged assault of a student identified only as “Jackie” at a university fraternity house in 2012.
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The article’s publication in November 2014 set off protests at the university and other colleges across the country. But the story fell apart when other news outlets surfaced questions about Jackie’s claims and uncovered that Erdely had never contacted any of the accused rapists or several others referred to by pseudonyms in the story.
Charlottesville, Va. police. said after an investigation that they could find no evidence supporting Jackie’s retelling, and Rolling Stone eventually retracted the article in April 2015. An “autopsy report” published in the Columbia Journalism Review described the article as “a failure that was avoidable,” faulting in part the journalists who “failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.”
But Eramo’s lawsuit, demanding $7.5 million in damages, required her lawyers to prove that Rolling Stone’s publication of the story was not only wrong but done with “actual malice,” which her attorneys addressed in closing arguments Tuesday.
“Once they decided what the article was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were,” attorney Tom Clare said Tuesday, according to CBS News.
Eramo wept in court when the verdict in her favor was read, according to CBS19 reporter Courteney Stuart.
Lawyers for Rolling Stone countered during the trial that the magazine would not have proceeded with publication had they been aware of the article’s fatal flaws, and Erdely, who took the stand during the trial, testified that she had full confidence in Jackie until after the story ran. The jury began deliberating on Wednesday after the more than two-week-long trial.
The fraternity named in the article, Phi Kappa Psi, also filed a lawsuit against Rolling Stone in November 2015, which is pending.