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CORPORATE TRAINING UNLIMITED, INC. v. NBC

December 1, 1994

CORPORATE TRAINING UNLIMITED, INC., DONALD M. FEENEY, JR., and JUDY G. FEENEY, Plaintiffs, against NATIONAL BROADCASTING COMPANY, INC., Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: RAYMOND J. DEARIE

 DEARIE, District Judge.

 Preliminary Statement

 Plaintiffs Corporate Training Unlimited, Inc. ("CTU"), Donald M. Feeney, Jr., and Judy G. Feeney bring this action against defendant National Broadcasting Company, Inc. ("NBC") alleging defamation and intentional interference with prospective business advantage. This action arises out of a televised report broadcast on DATELINE NBC ("DATELINE") at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23, 1993. The relevant segment ("the Broadcast") was entitled "Rambo Goes to Reykjavik." NBC moves to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint and, with respect to a single issue, moves for summary judgment. For the reasons provided below, defendant's motions are denied.

 Background

 Plaintiff CTU is a privately-held international security corporation which specializes, among other things, in attempting to rescue American children who have been abducted overseas by a non-custodial parent. (Compl. PP 3-5.) Plaintiff Donald Feeney is CTU's President; Judy Feeney is CTU's Executive Vice President. (Compl. PP 8, 11.) According to the complaint, CTU has successfully returned American children to the United States from Tunisia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Sweden, Peru, and Ecuador. (Compl. P 7.) Defendant NBC produces DATELINE, a television magazine broadcast weekly throughout the United States. (Compl. P 15.) The Broadcast in question was seen by a viewing audience estimated at 13.3 million households, or approximately 36 million people. (Compl. P 18.) The Broadcast

 The subject of the DATELINE segment was an attempted child rescue mission organized and carried out by CTU. In late 1992, CTU was retained by two American citizens, Fred Pittman and Brian Grayson. (Compl. PP 28-32.) Pittman and Grayson were seeking to locate and then repatriate their daughters, who, contrary to American court order, had been taken to Iceland by their Icelandic mother, Erna Eyjolfsdottir (Erna Pittman Grayson). (Compl. P 21.) The mission ended unsuccessfully, with the two daughters remaining with Eyjolfsdottir in Iceland, while CTU President Donald Feeney and Brian Grayson were apprehended by Icelandic police and later tried and convicted of kidnapping in Iceland. (Compl. P 39.)

 The Broadcast, captioned "Rambo Goes to Reykjavik," is approximately 15 minutes long. The segment begins with a short lead-in by NBC's Stone Phillips: "[Reporter] Brian Ross has the improbable tale of a commando group that, to one desperate father, seemed like the perfect way to get his daughter back from his ex-wife." (Tr. at 8.) The Broadcast consists primarily of a series of excerpts from interviews of the participants, interspersed by voiceover commentary supplied by Ross. In order of appearance, the individuals quoted on the Broadcast include 1) Erna Eyjolfsdottir, the Icelandic mother of Elizabeth Pittman and Anna Grayson; 2) Brian Grayson, the American father of Anna and one-time husband of Erna Eyjolfsdottir; 3) Donald Feeney, CTU's President and a plaintiff in this action; 4) Olbia Grayson, Brian Grayson's mother; 5) Ginger Grayson, Brian Grayson's current wife; 6) Elizabeth Pittman, the daughter of Erna Eyjolfsdottir and Fred Pittman; and 7) Judy Feeney, CTU's Executive Vice President and a plaintiff in this action.

 The Broadcast begins with images of Erna Eyjolfsdottir and Brian Grayson as they separately describe their marriage and its breakup. The result was what Ross terms "an ugly and bizarre fight" over the custody of five-year-old Anna, the daughter of Eyjolfsdottir and Grayson, and eleven-year-old Elizabeth, the daughter of Eyjolfsdottir and her first husband, Fred Pittman. (Tr. at 8.) Ross then introduces plaintiffs as "a group of self-styled American commandos who have gained great fame, going around the world with their own kind of solution for complicated international custody cases like the one involving Etna *fn1" and Brian." The video segment during this introduction is described in the transcript as "Footage of men driving car; commandos training." (Tr. at 8.) The image on screen is a car swerving at high speed, screeching and spinning to a halt, while individuals, many clad in army fatigues, are shown training in military-style maneuvers.

 After this introduction, plaintiffs CTU and Donald and Judy Feeney are referred to frequently throughout the Broadcast. First, the Graysons describe retaining plaintiffs after having seen them on a television talk show. Four minutes into the Broadcast, narrator Ross then states, "Over the next three months, Mrs. Grayson would send the Feeneys some $ 40,000 to get the children back." (Tr. at 9.) During the next shot an off-camera voice yells "Fire," while the viewer sees a close-up of the hands of various individuals who are firing weapons at a target during what is presumably a combat training session. The voiceover then describes plaintiffs: "Operating out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Donald and Judy Feeney run a company that trains corporate security guards. The company has been in bankruptcy since 1991 the Feeneys say because they lose money helping American parents." Shortly thereafter, Ross continues the voiceover: "Feeney is a former decorated Delta Force commando, who was part of the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran. . . . Feeney was forced to leave the military in 1986 for less-than-satisfactory-service -- what Feeney calls some 'minor financial improprieties.'" (Tr. at 10.)

 Next, Ross and the Graysons discuss some of the Feeneys' requests for money, including requests for additional funds so that a private jet could be hired that would be big enough to transport Grayson and his child, along with a crew from "60 Minutes." (Tr. at 13.) Ross reports that no private jet was ever hired. (Tr. at 14.) The Broadcast continues with Ross stating: "Now back in the United States, Feeney's wife, Judy, in one final twist, claims there was no kidnapping, no law broken, because Etna was in on the scheme, and had been paid [$ 5,000] to let the children go." (Tr. at 14.) Erna Eyjolfsdottir is then quoted as denying the accusation. Then Ross adds in a voiceover, "Authorities in Iceland agree. And for Etna, the story about $ 5,000 to sell Anna and Elizabeth is the final outrage, the final lie, from a group of Americans who some call heroes." There is footage of the children coloring, then a close-up of Eyjolfsdottir: "What they did to me and my children, I do not see any heroes. I see people that lie and destroy lives. I don't see any heroes at all." (Tr. at 14.)

 In the last minute or so of the Broadcast, NBC provides a summary. The exchange between Ross and Stone Phillips begins as follows:

 
ROSS: Tonight, both Don Feeney and Brian Grayson are in prison in Iceland: Grayson for two months; Feeney, the commando, for two years. Feeney and his wife, Judy, say this is the first time one of their missions has failed. And over the last few days, we've heard from the families of five children who the Feeneys have brought back to this country, families which have nothing but praise for the way the Feeneys operate. Stone:
 
PHILLIPS: But the tactics, I would have to say, are unlike any commando tactics I've ever seen, Brian. ROSS: Well, that's what the Graysons are saying now. They wonder about these champagne tactics, all the limousines and the hotels and the first-class lifestyle.

 (Tr. at 14-15.) After further discussion, the Broadcast ends with the words of Brian Ross: "There are some 4500 American children in similar cases, but the State Department says going the route of the commandos is folly; that in fact, you're better off spending the money on lawyers in the country where the child might be." (Tr. at 15.)

 The Complaint

 Plaintiffs assert four claims for relief: 1) that during the Broadcast NBC defamed plaintiff CTU; 2) that during the Broadcast NBC defamed plaintiff Donald Feeney; 3) that during the Broadcast NBC defamed plaintiff Judy Feeney; and 4) that NBC intentionally interfered with plaintiffs' prospective business advantage by using the Broadcast to destroy a television production deal between CTU, the Feeneys, and Multimedia Television Productions, Inc.

 In paragraph 67 of the complaint, plaintiffs allege the following:

 
67. Through statements, portrayals, depictions, and implications, the Broadcast defamed CTU, Don Feeney, and Judy Feeney in the following ways, among others:
 
(a) Falsely and continuously referring to and characterizing CTU operatives and the Feeneys as "Rambo"s.
 
(b) Falsely and continuously referring to, characterizing, portraying, and depicting CTU operatives and the Feeneys as violent.
 
(c) Falsely portraying and depicting CTU and the Feeneys to be violent in the context of a child custody case.

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