Jury awards $25M to man who sued Oklahoma’s largest newspaper after being mistakenly named in report

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma jury awarded a man $25 million on Monday after finding the state’s largest newspaper defamed him when they mistakenly identified him as the announcer who made racist comments during a 2021 broadcast of a girls basketball game.

The jury in Muskogee County awarded Scott Sapulpa $5 million in actual damages and another $20 million in punitive damages.

“We’re just so happy for Scott. Hopefully this will vindicate his name,” said Michael Barkett, Sapulpa’s attorney.

Sapulpa alleged defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and the jury found the newspaper acted with actual malice, which permitted them to consider punitive damages, Barkett said.

Lark-Marie Anton, a spokesperson for the newspaper’s owner, Gannett, said in a statement the company was disappointed with the verdict and planned to appeal.

“There was no evidence presented to the jury that The Oklahoman acted with any awareness that what was reported was false or with any intention to harm the plaintiff in this case,” Anton said.

The incident occurred in 2021 before the Norman-Midwest City girls high school basketball game when an announcer for a livestream cursed and called one team by a racial epithet as the players kneeled during the national anthem.

The broadcasters told their listeners on the livestream that they would return after a break. Then one, apparently not realizing the audio was still live, said: “They’re kneeling? (Expletive) them,” one of the men said. “I hope Norman gets their ass kicked … (Expletive) (epithet).”

Sapulpa, one of two announcers, was initially identified by the newspaper as the person who made the racist comment.

Matt Rowan, the owner and operator of the streaming service, later told The Oklahoman he was the person who made the remarks. Rowan apologized and blamed his use of racist language on his blood-sugar levels.

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