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May 21, 2015 Practice Points

HBO Wins in Defamation Suit Over 'Real Sports' Segment

By Michael L. Huggins

A New York federal jury has reached a favorable verdict for HBO in a defamation suit brought by Mitre Sports International (Mitre). Mitre alleged that a September 2008 segment of HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" misled viewers into thinking that Mitre employed low-paid, underage children in India to make its soccer balls.

Mitre claimed it does not produce soccer balls in Meerut, where the children were filmed, and that HBO's editing obscured this fact. Mitre argued that the 2008 segment was manipulated and that the director of the segment staged the scenes to make it look as though the children had been working on Mitre soccer balls when they actually had not. Further, Mitre contended that the segment report, called both "Children of Industry" and "Childhood Lost," made it look as if Mitre was unconcerned with the use of child labor. Mitre claimed that to the contrary it has been working to stem child labor practices internationally. Additionally, Mitre argued that while the HBO segment mentioned ten international sports brands as using child labor, it specifically and extensively targeted Mitre.

In 2008, Mitre sued HBO for defamation, seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages. Jurors listened to weeks of detailed testimony and closing arguments in what HBO's attorney, Dane Butswinkas, said was "a trial based on suggestion, not a trial by evidence." At trial, Butswinkas showed footage of children sewing soccer balls with a degree of precision that he surmised could not have been learned recently.

An HBO spokesman has commented, "We are delighted with the jury's decision, which confirms what we have said since the beginning of this legal proceeding in the fall of 2008: This case was without merit, and the 'Real Sports' reporting was unimpeachable. We couldn't be prouder of the 'Real Sports' franchise and the award-winning work done over the past 20 years. We are grateful to the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence."

Keywords: minority trial lawyer, litigation, HBO, Mitre, defamation, child labor

Michael L. Huggins is a J.D. Candidate at Fordham University School of Law in New York, New York.

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