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Dominion’s billion-dollar brawl against Fox News suddenly ends with shocking settlement moments before openings

Dominion v. Fox Lawsuit

A protest vehicle drives past the justice center in Wilmington, Del., Monday, April 17, 2023, where the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News is set to take place. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

What’s been described as the media defamation trial of the century ended before it started — with a surprise settlement.

During the morning session, a jury diverse in age, race and gender was empaneled and instructed by the judge. After lunch recess, however, opening statements were delayed until the judge announced a surprise settlement and then excused the jury.

Fox News agreed to pay $787.5 million to settle with Dominion, the voting machine company’s attorneys confirmed at a press conference.

“The truth matters,” Dominion’s attorney Justin Nelson said in a press conference outside of court. “Lies have consequences.”

Dominion CEO John Poulos added that Fox News now has “admitted to telling lies” about his company.

Whereas Dominion and their lawyers trumped their settlement outside of court, Fox News released an unsigned and carefully worded statement.

“We are pleased to have reached a settlement of our dispute with Dominion Voting Systems,” the network wrote. “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”

The judge made that finding in a rare summary judgment ruling before trial, narrowing Fox’s potential defenses at trial.

“This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards,” the network’s statement read. “We are hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”

The trial was expected to start on Monday before Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis bumped it for the first time on the eve of the trial.

Court officials provided no explanation for the second adjournment before Davis made the announcement just before 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

“I want to say I’ve never had as good of lawyering from here in the 13 years [I’ve been on the bench] – the quality of the briefing, ability of attorneys to answer questions, amount of workload that you’ve done in the case. I would be proud to be your judge in the future,” Davis said.

Dominion Voting Systems alleged that Fox News knowingly smeared them in an effort to keep viewers from flocking to far-right competitors after the 2020 presidential election. More than two years have passed since the voting machine company filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News and its parent corporation, claiming the network turned the “flame” of former President Donald Trump’s election lies into a “forest fire.”

Over years of litigation, Dominion gleaned unprecedented insights into Fox’s editorial process following Trump’s defeat. In internal emails and texts, top-rated host Tucker Carlson profanely ridiculed pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell as a “f—— b—-” — and privately stewed that he hates the former president “passionately.” (Carlson later sat down for a friendly interview with Trump, and neither man mentioned the revelation.)

News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch acknowledged in a deposition that some of his hosts appeared to endorse conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, even though he never believed them. Murdoch also conceded that he handed over confidential ad information from the Biden campaign to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Murdoch would have been forced to take the stand again over the course of the six-week trial. Hosts Maria Bartiromo and Carlson and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott also would have been expected to testify.

For Fox, the stakes were undoubtedly high, but it was hard to pinpoint just how high an award of damages could have gone.

Under Delaware law, there’s no limit to what Dominion could have asked a jury to award them in punitive damages. The company dropped a claim of $600 million in lost profits on the eve of trial, but they made clear that didn’t mean that their demand has gotten more modest.

Davis issued a number of pretrial rulings that would have put Fox News at a disadvantage. In a rare summary judgment ruling, Davis found that the Fox broadcasts about Dominion voting machines at issue in the trial are false as a matter of law. Fox cannot argue that the false allegations were newsworthy, or that they were the fault of Trump surrogates like Powell or Rudy Giuliani.

First Amendment scholar Jeff Kosseff noted that the pretrial rulings whittled down Fox’s viable defenses essentially to one: actual malice, the doctrine in defamation law established by New York Times v. Sullivan. It forces public figures that sue news organizations to establish that false statements were published knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth. As a result of the settlement, a jury will not decide whether Dominion met that high bar.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."