CNN is now embroiled in a legal battle that could result in significant financial consequences. A defamation lawsuit led by Zachary Young and his company, Nemex Enterprises Inc., seeks up to $1 billion in punitive damages against the news network.

The lawsuit centers on CNN’s portrayal of Young, a U.S. Navy veteran and private security consultant, during its coverage of the chaotic evacuation efforts amid the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. Young, who played a crucial role in assisting Afghan citizens to escape the Taliban, alleges that CNN’s reporting not only tarnished his reputation but also caused irreparable harm to his business.

In a segment aired on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on November 11, 2021, and subsequently republished across various platforms, CNN reporter Alex Marquardt accused Young of operating in a “black market” and exploiting desperate Afghans by charging “exorbitant fees.” Young contends that these accusations were not only false but also depicted him as an illegal profiteer, unfairly damaging his reputation and undermining his efforts.

Afterward, Young filed a defamation and trade libel lawsuit against CNN, arguing that the network’s coverage was both misleading and defamatory. The lawsuit gained significant traction when Young sought to amend his complaint to include claims for punitive damages, citing CNN’s intentional misconduct and gross negligence.

The trial court, presided over by Judge William Scott Henry, determined that Young had presented sufficient preliminary evidence to support his claims. This evidence included internal CNN communications that raised doubts about the accuracy and completeness of the story, as well as messages exchanged between Young and CNN employees highlighting factual inaccuracies in the reporting. Despite these warnings, CNN proceeded with the broadcast.

“We must consider whether Young made a reasonable evidentiary proffer to provide a reasonable basis for recovery of punitive damages at this stage. After reviewing the totality of the proffered evidence in the light most favorable to Young, we conclude that he did,” Judge Henry wrote in the filing. “Young sufficiently proffered evidence of actual malice, express malice, and a level of conduct outrageous enough to open the door for him to seek punitive damages. Whether Young can ultimately prevail is not the issue before us.”

Henry’s decision to allow the amendment for punitive damages was a critical turning point. Under Florida law, before a claimant can seek punitive damages, the court must establish that there is a reasonable basis for such claims. As a “gatekeeper,” the trial court ensures that claims for punitive damages are not frivolous and that substantial evidence supports them.

CNN appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that Young’s evidence was insufficient and that their reporting was based on opinion and ambiguous language rather than intentional falsehoods. However, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling, stating that Young had indeed made a reasonable evidentiary proffer. The appellate court clarified that the issue at this stage was not about proving the allegations but about the adequacy of the evidence to support a claim for punitive damages.

The upholding of Young’s case by the appeals court means CNN could soon be on the hook for up to $1 billion in damages for libel and defamation. This would come after Fox News settled a defamation suit against Dominion Voting Systems for around $750 million following 2020 election coverage.

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