HOUSTON – A Texas appeals court has sided with owners of The Houston Chronicle and CBS affiliate KHOU-TV in their battle against a libel lawsuit filed by a Houston lounge.
In an opinion filed on Dec. 19, the Texas 14th Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a decision by the 164th District Court of Harris County that ruled the media outlets' motions to dismiss were untimely.
The appeals court panel included Chief Justice Kem Thompson Frost and Justices Brett Busby and Ken Wise, who wrote the opinion.
Status Lounge Inc. filed the lawsuit in Harris County district court against Hearst Newspapers LLC, owner of the Chronicle, and KHOU-TV and two reporters, alleging that the media outlets falsely reported that the bar’s owner had shot a musician in an argument over payment for a performance at the bar.
The owners of the bar argued that they had built up a growing business until negative stories began to run, disparaging the bar.
On April 20, 2016, The Chronicle published an article about a shooting at Status Lounge the previous night, noting that witnesses had told police the gunman was the owner of the nightclub and “the victim and assailant got into an argument about how long the band was going to play that night,” the opinion states.
The court states KHOU-TV published a similar story on its website with a headline “HPD: Bar owner accused of shooting band member[.]”
On Aug. 8, 2016, five days after it filed a lawsuit, Status Lounge’s counsel asked KHOU to correct or retract its article. It claimed the shooting did not occur on the bar’s property and the owner didn’t shoot anyone, the opinion states.
Moreover, the lounge also claimed that the musician injured in the shooting did not have a problem with Status Lounge.
The defendants were then served with the Status Lounge’s lawsuit on Sept. 12 and Sept. 15, 2016.
The defendants then responded, alleging that the Status Lounge didn’t file a timely and sufficient request for a retraction under the Defamation Mitigation Act (DMA).
In January, the Chronicle and KHOU parties all filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, citing the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). However, the Status Lounge objected, claiming the motions were too late because the TCPA requires a motion to dismiss be filed within 60 days of the date of service of legal action.
The Status Lounge also claimed the TCPA was unconstitutional, which the court did not address in its opinion.
“We conclude that we have no jurisdiction to address the trial court’s ruling on Status Lounge’s constitutional argument in this interlocutory appeal,” Wise wrote in the Dec. 19 opinion. “Status Lounge not only argued that the TCPA was unconstitutional in its supplemental response to the defendants’ motions to dismiss, it also filed a motion to declare the TCPA unconstitutional, which the trial court denied by a separate order signed April 5, 2017.”
Citing Quest Communications Corp. v. AT&T Corp., Wise noted that “'an appellate court lacks jurisdiction to review an interlocutory order unless a statute specifically authorizes an exception to the general rule, which is that appeals may only be taken from final judgments.'”
The appeals court reversed a ruling that the defendants’ motion to dismiss was untimely, remanding it back to the trial court to rule on the merits of any arguments to be made by either side.