Fox Corp and Fox News have settled a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems for $US787.5 million ($1.2 billion), averting a high-profile trial putting one of the world’s top media companies in the crosshairs over its coverage of false vote-rigging claims in the 2020 US election.
The settlement was announced by the two sides and the judge in the case at the 11th hour, with a jury selected on Tuesday morning in Delaware and the trial poised to kick off hours later with opening statements.
Dominion had sought $US1.6 billion ($2.4 billion) in damages in the lawsuit filed in 2021.
Dominion CEO John Poulos called the settlement “historic”.
“Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and our customers,” Poulos said in a statement.
“Nothing can ever make up for that. Throughout this process, we have sought accountability and believe the evidence brought to light through this case underscores the consequences of spreading and endorsing lies.”
At issue in the lawsuit was whether Fox was liable for airing the false claims that Denver-based Dominion’s ballot-counting machines were used to manipulate the 2020 US election in favour of Democrat Joe Biden over Republican then-President Donald Trump.
Dominion had argued that these on-air claims caused the company “enormous and irreparable economic harm”.
“We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” Fox said in a statement that was read on air on Fox News.
“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.”
Fox Corp shares losed up slightly at $US34 ($51) but were down one per cent in after-hours trading after the settlement amount was disclosed.
Fox has plenty of cash to pay for a settlement.
It committed another $US3 billion ($4.5 billion) to buy back shares in the first quarter after revenues beat estimates.
Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch told Wall Street analysts in February the company had about $US4 billion ($5.9 billion) cash on hand.
Dominion lawyers declined to answer questions about whether Fox News would apologise publicly or make reforms.
Fox News is the most-watched US cable news network, according to Nielsen.
“Truthful reporting in the media is essential to our democracy,” Dominion’s Poulos said.
Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis, presiding over the case in Wilmington, had ordered a one-day trial postponement on Monday before another delay on Tuesday as the two sides hammered out a deal in private.
The deal spared Fox the peril of having some of its best-known figures called to the witness stand and subjected to potentially withering questioning, including executives such as Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old media mogul who serves as Fox Corp chairman, and Fox CEO Suzanne Scott as well as on-air hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro.
The primary question for jurors was to be whether Fox knowingly spread false information or recklessly disregarded the truth, the standard of “actual malice” that Dominion must show to prevail in a defamation case.
In February court filings, Dominion cited a trove of internal communications in which Murdoch and other Fox figures privately acknowledged the vote-rigging claims made about Dominion on-air were false.
Dominion said Fox amplified the untrue claims to boost its ratings and prevent its viewers from migrating to other media competitors on the right including One America News Network, which Dominion is suing separately.
Adding to the legal risks for Fox, another US voting technology company, Smartmatic, is pursuing its own defamation lawsuit seeking $US2.7 billion ($4.0 billion) in damages in a New York state court.
Fox Corp reported almost $US14 billion ($21 billion) in annual revenue last year.
“Fox’s statement about the settlement makes clear that Fox acknowledges ‘the court’s ruling finding certain claims about Dominion were false,” said Mary-Rose Papandrea, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
“For many plaintiffs, a court holding, and admission by the defendant about falsity, are even more important than any actual money damages.”