WILMINGTON, Del. — Fox News agreed to pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting Systems to settle a defamation lawsuit over false election claims on Tuesday, a massive sum that spared some of the biggest names in conservative media the witness stand.
Dominion, a voting machine company that has worked in over two dozen states, accused the conservative network of deliberately spreading bogus conspiracy theories about its products after the 2020 election in a bid to win back viewers. Those viewers refused to accept Donald Trump’s election defeat, Dominion said, and may also have been irate at Fox because its Decision Desk called Arizona for Joe Biden before other networks.
Dominion’s lawsuit said that Fox personnel from the C Suite to the production floor panicked about losing viewers to rivals like Newsmax — and began knowingly spreading lies about its products flipping votes from Trump to Biden. The falsehoods, spread by disgraced attorneys like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, also suggested the company was tied to Hugo Chavez and that it had bribed officials in Georgia, among other claims.
Dominion said its brand was sullied and its employees harassed to no end by MAGA diehards, and sought $1.6 billion in damages before the dramatic settlement.
“The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” Dominion attorney Justin Nelson said while trumpeting the payout outside the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center on Tuesday. “Over two years ago, a torrent of lies swept Dominion and election officials across America into an alternative universe of conspiracy theories, causing grievous harm to Dominion and the country.”
In a statement after the settlement, Fox News acknowledged a pre-trial ruling from a Delaware judge who declared it “CRYSTAL clear” that the network’s statements about Dominion were false. But the network stopped short of admitting wrongdoing.
“We are pleased to have reached a settlement of our dispute with Dominion Voting Systems,” Fox’s statement said. “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false. This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We are hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”
Opening arguments in the high-profile case in Delaware Superior Court had been scheduled to start around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. But after over two hours of unexplained delay, Judge Eric Davis returned to stun a packed courtroom shortly before 4 p.m.: “The parties have resolved their case,” he said.
The eye-popping $787.5 million sum is enormous in the annals of defamation cases, but with Fox claiming some $4 billion in cash on hand in its most recent quarterly earnings report, it’s not exactly going to bankrupt the company. And there did not appear to be any provision in the settlement deal requiring any kind of apology from Fox or from any of its most visible figureheads like Maria Bartiromo or Tucker Carlson.
Still, experts said the figure was a powerful one: In addition to denting Fox’s corporate coffers, the settlement — and its timing, just before the trial was set to begin — helped shine a light on the network’s misconduct.
Dominion “wanted compensation for the harm done to it, but it also wanted an extra measure of accountability for the harm it thought was done to the country, and part of that accountability came from the exposure that this late settlement provided,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Utah. “If they’d settled in February, the country wouldn’t know the things that Fox said internally about Trump, and its own audience, and about the sources it was platforming. And that’s significant.”
Indeed, the case represented both a financial blow to Fox and a source of embarrassment, thanks largely to a spectacular discovery process.
Highlights included Carlson seeming to privately wish for Trump to vanish from the national stage even as he publicly embraced him: “I hate him passionately,” Carlson told a colleague in one now-notorious personal exchange. Likewise, Fox titan Rupert Murdoch was deposed and also had his communications revealed, including an email in which he seemed to wrestle with whether his anchors Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham had been too willing to indulge in Trump’s fantasies of election theft: “Still getting mud thrown at us!” he wrote on Jan. 21, 2021, weeks after the Capitol riot. “Maybe Sean and Laura went too far.”
With those and other revelations now in the public domain, settling arguably sealed a PR victory for Dominion – even as some Fox haters bemoaned a missed opportunity to potentially watch Murdoch, Carlson and others squirm on the witness stand.
By settling now, Dominion locked in a payout, avoided the additional costs that would have come with a trial and lengthy appeals process, and steered clear of the uncertainty presented by a jury. “Once you go to trial, anything can happen,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at the University of Florida.
Despite emerging concerns from some Fox critics that it was avoiding true accountability by dodging an apology geared at its viewers, the company’s legal problems are far from over. It faces an even bigger lawsuit in New York from another voting-machine company, Smartmatic, which Fox News broadcasts suggested was linked to Dominion (it wasn’t) and was itself party to voter fraud (also false). The demand from the company in that case: $2.7 billion.
Every indication is that the case is proceeding toward trial. “Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign,” an attorney for Smartmatic said in a statement on Tuesday. “Smartmatic will expose the rest.”
Smartmatic faces its own hurdle in clearing the high bar for proving defamation cases in the United States. Many legal experts, after reviewing the discovery in the Dominion case, said Dominion seemed to have cleared that hurdle before its trial even began. In that sense, settlement in Wilmington seemed to observers like a harbinger of things to come.
“My guess is that this positions Smartmatic nicely for a handsome settlement,” Andersen Jones said.