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Judge Strikes Complaint in Libel Suit Against ProPublica

A ruling (PDF) issued Wednesday by a federal judge in Louisiana will effectively result in the dismissal of a libel lawsuit filed last year against ProPublica and the New York Times.

The case concerned "The Deadly Choices at Memorial," an article written by ProPublica's Sheri Fink and published in August in The New York Times Magazine.

The story reported how, in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina, some health professionals at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans injected severely ill patients -- more patients than had previously been known -- with lethal doses of drugs.

Dr. William Armington, a neuroradiologist mentioned in two paragraphs of the 13,000-word article, filed the suit in October, claiming the story falsely suggested he had known patients were being euthanized and did not act to prevent it.

In Wednesday's ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Martin L.C. Feldman wrote that the story did not indicate Armington had been among those involved in injecting patients. The judge concluded the article had not defamed Armington and that Armington had not shown anything in it to be false.

"Dr. Armington," the court found, "is portrayed as a doctor who, while suspecting euthanasia might occur, renewed his efforts to evacuate all of the patients."

The judge ordered Armington to pay the defendants' attorneys fees and costs, in accordance with Louisiana law.

Maxwell Kennerly, Armington's attorney, noted in an e-mail that the judge had conveyed distaste for the story in his opinion.

"The Court believed that the article 'selfishly resurrects melodrama to an old and sad story,' but nonetheless held that the article did not 'directly accuse Dr. Armington of engaging in euthanasia,'" Kennerly wrote. "We respectfully disagree with the latter."

David McCraw, the Times' assistant general counsel, said he was pleased the court had moved quickly and decisively on the matter.

"While the judge expressed some disagreement with our decision to publish the story," McCraw said, "he recognized that the article was in the public interest, that it portrayed Dr. Armington as a doctor who worked hard to evacuate patients, and that nothing about the article defamed Dr. Armington."

Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, said, "We're very pleased with the court's opinion, and continue to be enormously proud of Sheri Fink's extraordinary work of journalism."

Portrait of Robin Fields

Robin Fields

Robin Fields is a reporter with ProPublica. She joined ProPublica as a reporter in 2008, became a senior editor in 2010 and served as managing editor from 2013 to 2022 prior to returning to the reporter role.

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