A Florida judge ruled Monday that George Zimmerman has no right to damages from NBC for defamation of character, because he failed to prove that the network had acted with malicious intent – the standard required to prevail in a libel suit involving a public figure.
Mr. Zimmerman became a public figure in February 2012 when he pursued and fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, ruled Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson.
Zimmerman “voluntarily injected his views into the public controversy surrounding race relations and public safety in Sanford and pursued a course of conduct that ultimately led to the death of Martin and the specific controversy surrounding it,” Judge Nelson said, according to the Associated Press.
Nelson also presided over the criminal trial last July in which Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder. Zimmerman claimed that he was acting in self-defense when he was attacked by the teen while patrolling the area as a neighborhood watch volunteer.
In March 2012, NBC broadcasted excerpts of Zimmerman’s call to emergency operators on the night of the Feb. 26 incident during the network’s “Today” morning show, a nightly newscast, and on a Miami affiliate station. NBC edited an excerpt of Zimmerman's 911 call so it read: "This guy looks like he's up to no good ... He looks black."
But the full transcript of the 911 call on the night of the shooting shows that Zimmerman never volunteered that Martin was black, but rather responded to a question from the dispatcher: "OK, and this guy – is he black, white, or Hispanic?" Zimmerman responded: "He looks black."
Zimmerman's lawsuit charged that NBC's editing made him appear to be racist and opened him up to public ridicule and threats, which resulted in emotional distress and anguish.
NBC later issued a formal correction and public apology to Zimmerman.
“During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret,” read a statement issued by NBC on April 3, 2012, and posted to the network's corrections page. “We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers.”
Responding to Monday's ruling against Zimmerman, NBC News spokeswoman Ali Zelenko said in a statement that the network is "gratified by the court's dismissal of this lawsuit, which we have always believed to be without merit."
Zimmerman reportedly owes his defense attorneys $2.5 million for his criminal trial and any damages from the civil suit would have gone toward paying off that debt. Zimmerman’s attorneys have not yet said whether they will file an appeal.
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.