HTV to appeal ruling in Road Runner case

Attorneys for television station HTV and its owner, Martin Folse, say they will appeal a Jefferson Parish judge’s decision allowing a suit for defamation, alleged by owners of a Houma convenience store, to proceed.

“We will initially file a writ application with the state’s 5th Circuit Court of Appeal,” said HTV’s attorney, Mary Ellen Roy.

In a ruling released last week, Jefferson Parish District Judge Nancy Miller said affidavits in the case file and oral argument made in her courtroom suggested that Folse “championed a smear campaign” against the Road Runner convenience store at La. Highway 311 and St. Charles Street, during a Nov. 10 airing of his news and public affairs show “Bayou Time.”

During the show, Folse supplied details of a dispute between Roadrunner clerk Sagar Simkhada and Houma neurosurgeon Phillip McAllister, over which type of chewing tobacco McAllister had ordered.

Folse told viewers that Simkhada – whom he did not refer to by name at the time – had made vulgar references about U.S. veterans.

Folse coupled that discussion with information about local convenience stores owned by Middle Eastern immigrants being involved in synthetic marijuana sales and using their money to fund terrorism abroad, urging his viewers to patronize stores that are owned by “Americans.”

As noted by Miller in her decision, Simkhada is a native of Nepal and the store is owned by a Vietnamese-American. On the show Folse reported that he was a “Middle Eastern male.”

Nepal is a Himalayan nation in southern Asia. Simkhada told The Times that he and his family are Buddhists.

Angry veterans and their supporters called in to the show, and announced that there would be a protest at the store the next day.

The store shut down during the protest, with participants waving flags and signs.

The attorney for the Road Runner store’s owners, Paul Carriere, claims in court papers that the broadcast damaged the store’s reputation and resulted in loss of business and other damages.

Utilizing a Louisiana statute that can be used to block lawsuits when they arise from protected speech issues, Roy argued on behalf of Folse that the suit should be dismissed because Folse’s words were spoken in a context of free expression, based on a topic of public concern, thus requiring protection.

Carriere argued that the broadcast took a private conversation between Simkhada and McAllister and launched it into the public sphere.

Miller ruled that Folse “conflated” or mixed together his words about convenience stores selling illegal substances and funding terrorism with the tale of Simkhada and McAllister.

Folse’s argument for dismissal of the suit was dependent, Miller wrote, on a “strained parsing of the defamatory statements into isolated categories, and even individual sentences, in such a way as to make them seem unrelated to each other.”

“Breaking the statements into tiny isolated parts robs them of their meaning,” the decision states. “They were stated in a single breath and must be analyzed as such.”

Folse’s statements, Miller wrote, were presented as fact rather than opinion.

He was “unable to present any admissible evidence that Mr. Simkhada or the Road Runner convenience store engaged in, or were ever cited for the sale of synthetic marijuana, or that they were in any way connected to terrorism.”

Folse supplied a transcript of the show, which was placed in evidence.

Miller did uphold Folse’s attorneys’ objection to allegations of interfering with business relations and violation of Louisiana’s unfair trade practice law, suggesting that arguments in the case did not match the level required to uphold those.

In an editorial presented on HTV last week, Folse responded to the ruling, announcing plans to appeal.

“As this moves forward in the court system … it will need much insight by law enforcement officials, who have knowledge of many aspects of this lawsuit,” Folse said. “I have not been able to tell my story. There are pending criminal trials around the corner in Terrebonne Parish that share similar witnesses to those arrested in the 2013 drug busts … to comment and share information that would jeopardize a criminal investigation to save my own skin would not be proper. (But) I may soon be able to tell my side of the story in open court. We opted not to include some information that might be used to our benefit … now it will be our job to show what we have.”

Roy was asked for clarification Monday morning.

“As Folse alluded in his editorial, law enforcement investigators have confirmed that individuals allegedly have sold synthetic marijuana out of the Road Runner convenience store,” Roy said.

No arrests have been made at or in connection with that store concerning synthetic marijuana sales.

Records on file with the Louisiana Secretary of State show that the location has a shared history with individuals associated with stores where arrests were made in 2013 for synthetic marijuana sales, but indications are that they pre-date the acquisition of the store by its current owners, Trio Leasing, a Gretna company.

Folse’s attorneys have 30 days from the date of the decision to file the writ application.

The appeals court is not required to hear the case, but could if it chose to. If it does, then the facts as presented in Miller’s courtroom and in the file would be heard all over again.

A separate appeal of Miller’s decision – in which Folse’s lawyers would likely allege errors by the judge – may be filed within 60 days of the decision.

Folse has maintained on air and through his attorneys that his motivation in presenting the story were simple.

“I was defending veterans,” he said.

HTV owner Martin Folse leaves the 24th Judicial District courthouse in Gretna.