Jury awards Sioux City lawmaker $231,000 in defamation suit

2012-04-06T15:07:00Z 2014-08-14T19:59:09Z Jury awards Sioux City lawmaker $231,000 in defamation suitBy Nick Hytrek and Nate Robson Journal staff writers Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY -- A jury awarded Rick Bertrand $231,000 in damages late Friday after finding that his opponent and the Democratic Party committed libel and slander in a negative television ad in their 2010 race for an Iowa Senate seat.

Bertrand, a Republican, in October 2010 filed a lawsuit in Woodbury County District Court against his Democratic opponent at the time, Rick Mullin, and the Iowa Democratic Party, claiming he was defamed by a campaign ad that claimed Bertrand "put profits ahead of children's' health."

The Iowa Democratic Party paid for the ad, which was approved by Mullin. Jurors, who deliberated for more than four hours, ordered Mullin to pay $31,000 and the Democratic Party $200,000.

Bertrand said he did not wish to comment immediately after the verdict was read.

"I'm going to let this sit for a bit. It's pretty raw right now," the Sioux City businessman and developer said.

Mullin, who shook hands with Bertrand before leaving the courtroom, had no comment.

Bertrand filed the suit days after Mullin's campaign aired the ad, which said, in part, "Bertrand was a sales agent for a big drug company that was rated the most unethical company in the world. The FDA singled out Bertrand's company for the marketing of dangerous drugs to children."

Mullin testified during the trial, which began Tuesday, that the ad was run in response to what he said was a negative campaign ad aimed at him by Bertrand's campaign.

Bertrand, a former regional manager for biotech company Takeda North America, the U.S. unit of Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., said in his lawsuit that he has never owned a drug company, nor did he ever sell the pediatric drug alluded to in the ad.

Bertrand defeated Mullin for the senate seat in District 1, which covers Sioux City, by 286 votes.

University of Iowa Political Science Associate Professor Timothy Hagle said successful libel and slander lawsuits such as Bertrand's are rare and often get overturned on appeal.

The biggest challenge for politicians is that they are considered public figures, which sets the standard of libel or slander higher than a private citizen, Hagle said.

The different standard allows for negative campaign ads that "play loose and fast, and give a negative impression" of the facts without necessarily breaking the law, Hagle said.

If appealed, Bertrand's case would likely focus on whether Mullin knew the ad had false information or recklessly failed to check the facts before airing the ad, Hagle said. Both are grounds to uphold the jury's decision, he said.

"The Supreme Court has set the standard of actual malice -- a known or reckless falsehood with no basis in facts," he said.

If Bertrand's verdict is not overturned, Hagle said, Friday's decision could influence other politicians to tone down attack ads.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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