MUSKOGEE — The Oklahoman libel trial culminated today when jurors announced their verdict finding Gannett Co., Inc. liable for $20 million in punitive damages to Scott Sapulpa for misidentifying him as the user of a racial slur during a high school basketball game broadcast in 2021. The verdict follows jurors’ Friday decision finding Gannett liable to Sapulpa for $5 million in actual damages.
The verdicts bring total damages awarded to Sapulpa to $25 million, a staggering figure that could have ramifications across the nation for the newspaper chain, which saw its stock price dip slightly in openings Monday and fluctuate around $2.35 per share. The company’s stock price has dropped 33 percent over the past six months.
Jurors reconvened Monday morning to determine the amount of punitive damages Gannett owed to Sapulpa after The Oklahoman’s former sports reporter Cameron Jourdan misidentified Sapulpa as the speaker of a racial slur in an article available on the newspaper’s website for about 2 1/2 hours on March 12, 2021. Punitive damages are awarded in an effort to dissuade future actions by the same defendant or others.
During oral arguments, Michael Barkett, one of Sapulpa’s attorneys, emphasized the need to hold Gannett, one of the nation’s largest media companies, accountable for the harm done to Sapulpa and to deter others from publishing articles with false information.
“Their entire culture, we’ve seen in this case, is profits over people,” Michael said. “Their power is what blinds them from telling the truth. They think they can get away with it.”
Bob Nelon, representing Gannett, argued that the company recognized it had made a mistake and that a high award of damages would hurt smaller newspapers owned by the company.
“Newspapers are made up of people, and people make mistakes,” Nelon said. “Mistakes happen. Gannett is made up of people — over 11,000 people.
“When you punish Gannett, you’re punishing all those small-town newspaper editors.”
About 11 a.m. oral arguments concluded, and the jury began deliberations for a second time. Sapulpa and his attorneys waited in the courthouse law library, while attorneys for The Oklahoman and Gannett occupied an empty courtroom down the hall.
After 2 1/2 hours, the parties were called back into the courtroom to hear the jury’s final verdict. With less than half a dozen observers present, Muskogee County District Judge Jeffrey Payton announced the verdict: $20 million in punitive damages.
After the 10-2 verdict, Sapulpa said he felt “numb” and teared up as he expressed his feelings.
“My kids, their last name is cleared, too,” he said.
Barkett complimented the jurors.
“The jury delivered a righteous and just verdict in not only compensating Scott for everything that the defendants put him through over the last three years, but also the punitive damage award that will also cause Gannett, USA TODAY and The Oklahoman to take a hard look at their business culture and start putting people over profits,” he said.
A Gannett’s spokesperson said the company intends to appeal the decision.
“I’m sure they’ll try to appeal,” Barkett said, “but I’m confident in the validity and righteousness of the verdict.”
Punitive damages uncapped
It was a chilly morning as jurors trickled into the courthouse Monday, waiting in the hall while the attorneys for each side whispered to one another about the case. About 9 a.m., before the jury was empaneled, Nelon asked the judge to declare a mistrial based on an allegation that an improper jury instruction was given. Payton denied Nelon’s montion.
Jury: The Oklahoman libeled Scott Sapulpa, owes him at least $5 million
by Tristan Loveless and Michael Duncan
Also before the jury was present, attorney Cassie Barkett argued for no cap being placed on the amount of punitive damages that could be given based on last week’s jury finding of intent and actual malice.
“Scott Sapulpa was the most hated man in the country on March 12, 2021,” Cassie Barkett argued.
Meanwhile, one of The Oklahoman’s attorneys insisted the jury had only found intent or actual malice and did not find the required intent and actual malice, and therefore damages should be capped.
Payton sat for a minute, hand on his chin, and pondered the argument before making his ruling.
“‘I’m gonna kill you’, ‘I hope your kids get ALS,'” Payton said, recounting some of the messages sent to Sapulpa. “I think it was intentional and malicious.”
Payton ruled that the punitive damages would not be capped when presented to the jury.
Background on the case
The saga started on March 11, 2021, during Norman High’s game against Midwest City when one of the announcers, Matt Rowan, is heard using racist language on a hot mic during the livestream of the game. The outburst quickly went viral.
“They’re kneeling? Fuck them. I hope Norman gets their ass kicked,” Rowan said.
Sapulpa asked about the kneeling: “Are you serious?”
After clarifying team uniform colors, Rowan continued.
“Fuck them. I hope they lose. Come on Midwest City,” Rowan said. “They’re going to kneel like that? Hell with them. They even saluting the flag? Some of them aren’t. Fucking n*****s.”
The Oklahoman published Jourdan’s article on the incident the next day about 11 a.m. and it was updated at 12:37 p.m. to falsely identify Sapulpa as the one who used a racial slur. Sapulpa’s name was removed at 3:05 p.m. and Rowan was named in the article at 5:35 p.m.
After Sapulpa was wrongly identified, his attorneys said he was placed on administrative leave, his teaching contract was not renewed, his private business lost nearly all its clients, he received dozens of harassing messages including death threats, and he lost many personal and professional relationships.
Nearly three years later, on Jan. 22, the libel trial kicked off in Muskogee County District Court in front of Payton. During the first week, jurors heard testimony and evidence about the behind-the-scenes communications of The Oklahoman’s reporters and editors about the article.
The second week included testimony from Sapulpa and Rowan, as well as from a medical expert, football coaches and the Hulbert superintendent of public schools. Late Friday afternoon, the jury found Gannett liable for $5 million in actual damages, punting their punitive damages decision to Monday.
(Update: This article was updated at 4:30 p.m. and again at 7:40 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, to include additional information.)