Can You Sue a Media Outlet for Wrongful Death?

With well over six hundred thousand cases of COVID-19, 26,000 deaths, and no sign of an end to the crisis, it is inevitable that people across the nation will be wondering just how we got into this mess and if any of those deaths were wrongful deaths and could have been prevented. Of course, no one can blame the virus. It is just taking advantage of a golden opportunity to spread. However, a quick look around the planet reveals glaring differences between the way the U.S. and many other countries have handled the spread of the virus.

Although it’s not easy comparing different countries, there is evidence that those nations where the action was taken earlier and where government officials listened to health experts have managed to contain the disease better and with far fewer fatalities. Clear, early, fact-based information available to the public may also have made a considerable difference elsewhere. It’s inevitable that there are going to be many people here in the U.S. who will be wondering just how many of their loved ones have died needlessly.

Already, there has been a number of wrongful death lawsuits filed against cruise ship companies. Cruise ships have been a particular casualty around the world, including those based on the U.S. east coast, with many of them having become floating incubators of disease. Lawsuits filed by family members of deceased cruise passengers have alleged that cruise companies may have deliberately covered up incidences of passengers with flu-like symptoms onboard, resulting in far more illness and deaths because of the speed and ease of transmission in these crowded environments.

Some want to sue media outlets alleging misinformation has caused “mass deaths”

Here in the U.S., a Washington (state) based non-profit organization has filed a lawsuit against Fox News, owned by the Murdoch clan, alleging that misinformation in the early days of the virus outbreak has cost thousands of U.S. lives. Washington was the first state in the U.S. where the virus came ashore back in January. The plaintiff is the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (WASHLITE). It alleges that Fox News downplayed and misrepresented the full potential seriousness of COVID-19 in the earlier stages of its spread. Because the news channel enjoys a huge number of viewers, its views, expressed by such well-known characters as Sean Hannity and anchor, Trish Ready (since sacked), may have contributed to millions of Americans not realizing just how serious the disease could be and how their actions could spread the disease and cause fatalities in vulnerable people.

The lawsuit, according to a report in the Seattle Times, alleges that the network through its misinformation has contributed to “mass death” and a “public health crisis.”

The lawsuit names Comcast and AT&T as co-defendants. According to WASHLITE’s attorney, Liz Hallock, the group is not out to make a lot of money or kill free speech. She says the lawsuit is focused on making sure the American public realizes that the COVID-19 menace is really serious and not the hoax as was allegedly reported in the early days by Fox News presenters.

A wrongful death lawsuit may fail as it could run counter to the 1st Amendment

Opinion on the likelihood of the lawsuit being successful seems to have divided lawyers. Many think that it will fail as it will be seen as a direct assault on the First Amendment which guarantees Americans, including by implication, the media, the right to free speech.

The lawsuit is filed in Washington and alleges that the network violated Washington’s state consumer protection act. It is questionable whether, as there is no specific individual injury or wrongful death of a particular plaintiff involved, the lawsuit would stack up, but many state consumer protection acts only require evidence of misconduct by a defendant for a civil case to win.

Whether the case has any chance of success or not, it seems that Rupert Murdoch, now 89, and his son Lachlan, are quietly preparing a legal team to build a  case against the lawsuit and are looking to have it dismissed. Such is the magnitude of the spread and effects of COVID-19 across the nation, however, that WASHLITE’s lawsuit may only be the first of many to come.

Closer to home, in Mississippi, the recent shelter-in-place order by the state government on April 4th is currently expected to last at least until the 20th of April. As “non-essential” activity is now curtailed, this has meant a lot of lawyers working from home. It hasn’t stopped anyone from discussing their legal needs. You can contact the Diaz Law Firm in Jackson at 601-607-3456.