The Oklahoman Found Liable for $20 Million in Damages in Landmark Libel Case

Muskogee, Oklahoma – The Oklahoman libel trial reached its conclusion today with the announcement of the jury’s verdict. The jury found Gannett Co., Inc. liable for $20 million in punitive damages to Scott Sapulpa. This follows the jury’s earlier decision on Friday, where Gannett was found liable for $5 million in actual damages. The total damages awarded to Sapulpa now amount to a staggering $25 million. The verdict may have significant implications for the newspaper chain, as its stock price has already experienced a slight dip.

The trial centered around The Oklahoman’s misidentification of Sapulpa as the user of a racial slur during a high school basketball game broadcast in 2021. Jurors deliberated the amount of punitive damages owed by Gannett to Sapulpa, as a means to discourage future similar actions. Sapulpa’s legal team argued for holding Gannett accountable and emphasized the need to deter the publishing of articles with false information.

Representing Gannett, attorney Bob Nelon acknowledged the company’s mistake but argued against a high award of damages, as it could negatively impact smaller newspapers within the Gannett portfolio. The jury ultimately delivered a verdict of $20 million in punitive damages after deliberating for 2 1/2 hours.

Following the verdict, Sapulpa expressed his relief and stated that his children’s last name had also been cleared. Sapulpa’s attorney, Michael Barkett, praised the jury’s decision, stating that it would lead Gannett and its newspapers to reconsider their business culture and prioritize people over profits. Gannett has announced its intention to appeal the decision.

The case began in March 2021 when an announcer was heard making racist comments during a basketball game livestream. Subsequently, The Oklahoman published an article misidentifying Sapulpa as the individual who used the racial slur, causing significant harm to Sapulpa both personally and professionally. The trial, which took place in Muskogee County District Court, lasted for two weeks, with the jury’s final decision on punitive damages announced today.