Former Iranian hostage Jerry Plotkin settled his libel lawsuit Tuesday against the former owners of the Los Angeles Daily News, ending a case that triggered national debate on journalism ethics and touched on several of the major free press legal issues of the decade.
Plotkin filed the lawsuit after the newspaper printed a story stating that Plotkin had been under investigation for drug trafficking.
The Van Nuys Publishing Co., the former owners of the Daily News, in a prepared statement, said that “without admitting any liability, we regret any harm that may have been caused Mr. Plotkin by any unintended impression concerning the article.”
Plotkin claimed total victory, saying he will receive a settlement “large enough to compensate me for the substantial damages I have suffered.”
“I have been totally vindicated,” Plotkin said in a statement issued by his lawyer, Alan I. Rothenberg. “My name has been cleared. I went to Iran for completely legitimate business purposes, and there was no truth to the implication to the contrary.”
The Daily News story appeared the day after Plotkin and 51 other American hostages were released in 1981 after 14 1/2 months of captivity in Tehran at the hands of Iran Revolutionary Guards.
444 Days of ‘Living Hell’
“My 444 days in captivity were a living hell; in many ways the almost eight years since my release have been equally torturous because of what I considered to be false accusations against me,” Plotkin’s statement continued. “With this settlement, now at last I am truly a free man.”
The day the Daily News story appeared, both federal narcotics agents and Los Angeles Police Department officials denied any investigation of Plotkin.
While the newspaper’s former owners asserted that they published the story “in good faith” and denied any wrongdoing, their statement was a clear apology.
“We have settled the case . . . in order to avoid further lengthy and costly litigation and to bring this matter to a close.
“All of the evidence which has been developed during the pendency of Mr. Plotkin’s lawsuit establishes that he went to Iran for completely legitimate business purposes. Such evidence further establishes that he was not the target of any law enforcement investigation of any kind at the time he left for Iran, or since.”
Lawyers for Plotkin said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leon Savitch, who spent a week last month attempting to settle the case, had issued a 96-hour gag order forbidding discussion of the settlement. Daniel Fogel, lawyer for the publishing firm, could not be reached Tuesday.
Plotkin, 54, of Studio City, has had two heart attacks and undergone bypass surgery since his release, according to the court file. An insurance adjuster, Plotkin is married and has two sons, ages 2 and 5.
Two former Daily News reporters who wrote the story--Arnie Friedman and Adam Dawson--earlier were dismissed by Plotkin as defendants in the case.
The case made national headlines in 1981 when the story appeared after the hostages were released, and again the next year when Daily News executives ordered the reporters to comply with a court order and reveal the names of confidential sources they used in preparing the story.
Earlier, the reporters had refused, citing promises they had made to the sources. But when a judge then entered a judgment against the paper in favor of Plotkin on his $60-million claim, newspaper executives ordered the writers to comply.
That decision was widely condemned by news executives across the country. Many said it would have caused Friedman to violate fundamental ethical principles of modern journalism, and made it more difficult for the media in general to probe sensitive topics.
Eventually, Friedman revealed the names of two agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency after they agreed to the disclosure. Dawson never revealed his sources.
The case made brief legal history as well. After three weeks of testimony in 1986, much of it from fellow hostages, Plotkin was found to be a private figure for the purposes of defamation law. Under a 25-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plotkin’s task in court would have been much more difficult had he been found to be a public figure.
As a private figure, Plotkin needed only to prove that the Daily News was careless when it printed a false story. Had media attorneys prevailed, Plotkin would have faced the far greater task of proving the paper printed the story knowing it to be false, or with reckless disregard for its truth.
Three times, the matter reached the state Supreme Court. But each time, the high court ultimately declined to intervene.
Had the case gone to trial as scheduled next week, both sides expected a series of appeals that could have created legal rules with powerful impact on how news is reported in California.
Rothenberg had filed a battery of motions seeking to forbid any questions about Plotkin’s criminal record--including a 1966 conviction for marijuana smuggling.