A day after a jury slapped John Stokes with a $3.8-million lawsuit for defamation, the controversial radio personality got on the air and said he’s not going anywhere.
“We will continue,” Stokes assured listeners. “We’re not going out of business. The towers are still standing.”
But if the Flathead County District Court jury’s decision stands up through a likely appeal, the radio station and its owner’s show would face a daunting financial challenge.
The multi-million dollar jury award was the result of three on-air comments Stokes made last year about Davar Gardner and his son Todd Gardner, who own a recreation-vehicle store and an auction barn near the radio station.
Stokes’ comments included claims that the Gardners lied under oath during a previous lawsuit with Stokes; that the Gardners submitted a false affidavit during the same litigation; and that the Gardners committed bank fraud when obtaining a $900,000 loan from Glacier Bank.
“We are ecstatic about (the ruling),” Todd Gardner said. “We know we’ll probably never see a dollar, but the more important thing is the message it sends to the valley about what’s right and wrong. Just because you have a microphone doesn’t mean you can attack someone.”
The jury said Stokes’ broadcast remarks caused $900,000 in emotional and monetary damages to each of the Gardners. Because the jury also said Stokes made the comments with malicious intent, they were asked to go back to deliberation and determine if there should be punitive damages as well. About an hour later, they awarded an additional $2 million.
As part of the case, the jury also ruled that Stokes and his two defunct corporations – Z-600 Inc. and Skyline Broadcasting – are all the same entity and are together liable for the $3.8 million in damages. During his punitive-damages testimony last Wednesday, Stokes said the $1.8 million awarded at that point was already way more than he could pay. “I’d have to bankrupt the corporation and go out of business,” he said.
During punitive arguments, the Gardners’ lead attorney Robert Baldwin noted that on a court-ordered list of his holdings, Stokes recorded a $2.8-million mortgage as an asset. He also cited a letter that Stokes sent to the Gardners during the previous litigation, saying he would sell his radio station and its site to the Gardners for $5 million.
In September of last year, it was widely reported that Stokes put his 6.65 acres of land up for sale, including the station, asking $4 million.
Stokes did not respond to inquiries by the Beacon seeking information as to the future of the station, the financial burden of the court decision or whether the station is still for sale. He did, however, assure KGEZ listeners Sept. 18 – the day after the jury’s decision – that he would fight to stay on the air.
Stokes began his morning radio show with Steve Marriott’s “Black Coffee.” The song, he said, alluded to the infamous “McDonald’s coffee case,” where a jury awarded $2.9 million to an 81-year-old woman who was scalded by McDonald’s coffee. The case is often used as an example of unreasonable jury awards.
What do fine people of the Flathead do, as their duty as jurors, to punish this little black box, this family-owned business down here on the side of road that has to go to fundraisers every once in awhile to keep doors open?” Stokes said. “They awarded $3.8 million – a million more than against McDonalds – for about three minutes of air time.”
“Out of 4,600 hours of being on the air, I screwed up for three minutes,” he added.
Stokes said the $3.8 milllion was the largest verdict ever awarded in Flathead County and the largest monetary damage award in the history of the entire state. It was a precedent setting case, he argued, and “a universal warning to all media.”
“So what I learned yesterday, and so many of us will, is that what previously was believed to be First Amendment protected rights, rights of the press to report things as they see it, now costs $3.8 million,” he said. “The First Amendment and the truth cost $3.8 million.”
Shortly after the jury’s decision was announced last week, Stokes said he planned to file an appeal. He alluded again several times on his Thursday show to taking that legal action, but said he’d rather work out a settlement.
“What we’d rather do is sit down and settle this thing with all parties involved, so we get the new station, the new location and keep KGEZ, the oldest station in America, on the air,” he said.
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