Just six days before the defamation case brought against Oprah Winfrey by Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane was set for trial in Philadelphia the two women settled the suit “peacefully”. Mzamane was headmistress of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa in 2007, when the sexual abuse allegations made it into main stream media. Allegations in October 2007 that a dormitory matron in the South African school sexually assaulted six girls ended in a news conference by Winfrey in which she stated “she was going to clean house from top to bottom and had no confidence in Mzamaine”.
In October 2007, dorm matron Virginia “Tiny” Makopo was charged with 13 counts of indecent assault, assault, and criminal injury. Her alleged victims included six girls, ages 13 to 15, and a 23-year-old co-worker.
The defamation suit was filed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania because Mzamane has a home there. She was an administrator at Germantown Friends School before Winfrey recruited her for the South African school, which opened in January 2007.
Charles “Chip” Babcock Winfrey’s long time personal attorney had stated in Court on March 19 that students from the school are being flown to Philadelphia for the trial. Babcock said he might ask the judge to allow two students, now 14 and 15, testify at a private hearing that would then be shown to jurors later via a video recording. In South Africa, minors typically do not testify in open court, Babcock said. “We’re going to see how the kids get acclimated here” and the reaction of their parents, he said before we go further with this.
U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno had told lawyers for Winfrey and Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane, that he would be setting aside two extra courtrooms to handle the over flow of media expected to cover the high profile trial at the pretrial conference on March 19. Judge Robreno stated that a live video stream would be fed into those two additional courtrooms to accommodate the amount of media expected.
Oprah Winfrey was set to take the stand at the trial. Oprah was expected to defend her statements on the basis of free speech. Charles “Chip” Babcock together with wife Nancy Hamilton, an attorney also with Jackson Walker, are considered one of the best first amendment litigation teams in the U. S.
Mzamane claims that Oprah’s statements about no confidence in the head mistress and that Oprah was cleaning house at the school to see that the girls were watched after were defamatory and have since made it difficult for her to find employment.
The Court had dismissed the false light claim and claims for exemplary damages before March 19, it appears that the only other issue that a jury would decide would be the amount of salary that Mzamane had lost from 2007 because her suit claimed that the scandal had prevented her from gaining other employment.
Mzamane, a former administrator at a Philadelphia prep school and a popular local educator in the Philadelphia area was seeking $250,000 in damages, saying that she has not been able to find work since the firing. The relatively small amount of the damage claim indicates the trial is stacking up as a bitter courtroom confrontation — with neither side appeared to be willing to settle out of court.
Following a meeting yesterday, March 23, 2010, without any of their lawyers present both women issued a joint statement that said; “The two parties met woman to woman without their lawyers and are happy that they could resolve this dispute peacefully to their mutual satisfaction. Ms. Winfrey testified in her deposition that she did not intend the implications placed on her words by the plaintiff. Ms. Mzamane testified in her deposition that she has no evidence that Ms. Winfrey knowingly made a false statement about her or entertained serious doubt about the truth of what she said. We are pleased both parties have reached a conclusion.”
The statement was attributed to Charles L. “Chip” Babcock and Nancy W. Hamilton, attorneys for Winfrey, and Timothy McGowan and Matthew Reber, attorneys for Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane.
You might remember that Charles “Chip” Babcock represented Winfrey in a six weeks trial in 1996 in the panhandle of Texas when cattle ranchers sued Winfrey for defamation when she made a statement on her popular day time show about “mad cow disease”. It was during that trial that Babcock introduced Winfrey to his jury consultant, Phil McGraw, who later became known as Dr. Phil and now has a show produced by Winfrey’s production company of Harpo Productions Inc.
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March 24, 2010
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