Judge: No separate defamation trials for Fox News, Fox Corp.

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – The judge presiding over a voting machine company’s defamation lawsuit against Fox denied the company’s request Wednesday to hold separate trials – one for Fox News and another for the network’s parent company.

The request by Dominion Voting Systems came a day after its attorneys told the judge that Fox attorneys had withheld critical information about the role company founder Rupert Murdoch, who is chairman of Fox. Corp., played at Fox News.

Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis, who consolidated the cases against both entities in December, refused Dominion’s request to hold a separate trial during which Murdoch would testify as a Fox News witness.

The request came after Dominion attorneys told the judge that they learned just this week that Murdoch also was an officer of Fox News, holding the title of executive chair. That was contrary to repeated assertions by Fox attorneys.

Murdoch’s role and that of other top Fox executives is at the heart of Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation case, which alleges that Fox damaged the company by repeatedly airing false allegations that its machines and the software they used rigged the 2020 presidential election against former President Donald Trump.

The company’s attorneys have sought to insulate members of the Murdoch family from the lawsuit, including trying to keep them from testifying live before a jury. The attorneys have argued that executives’ roles at the parent company, Fox Corp., removed them from the day-to-day decisions that allowed the false election claims to be aired on various Fox News programs.

Fox Corp. had asserted since Colorado-based Dominion filed its lawsuit in 2021 that Rupert Murdoch had no official role at Fox News. In its filings, it had listed Fox News officers as Jay Wallace, Joe Dorrego and Suzanne Scott, who is Fox News’ chief executive officer. But on Sunday, Fox disclosed to Dominion’s attorneys that Murdoch also is “executive chair” at Fox News.

In a statement, Fox said Murdoch has been listed as executive chairman of Fox News in SEC filings since 2019. Fox attorneys also noted during Wednesday’s pretrial hearing that Dominion attorneys, using a publicly available proxy statement, had asked Murdoch at his deposition if he was executive chair at Fox News.

“No. My son is the chief executive of everything at Fox,” Murdoch initially replied, referring to his son, Lachlan Murdoch, who is executive chairman of Fox Corp. He later said, “I don’t know.”

“I may have had that title in the past. I may have it now. I don’t know,” Rupert Murdoch said during the deposition.

Fox attorneys have said Murdoch’s title at Fox News was “honorific,” and that he has had no role in day-to-day management of Fox News.

Dominion attorneys contend that Fox’s late disclosure of Murdoch’s dual role has deprived Dominion of the ability to produce documents from Murdoch to which it otherwise would have been entitled. As an alternative to ordering separate trials, Dominion attorneys said Davis should give an “adverse inference” to jurors about Fox’s conduct.

Davis declined to rule on that request, saying Dominion would have to offer evidence to support it and that Fox would have a chance to respond. The judge, however, appeared to have a more pressing concern.

“What do I do with attorneys that aren’t straightforward with me?” he said, suggesting that the conduct of Fox attorneys could result in unspecified sanctions.

A trial in the case is set to start Thursday with jury selection.

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