Appeals Court Tosses Out Deion Sanders' Victory in Defamation Suit
Former Dallas Cowboys cornerback and Pro Hall of Famer Deoin Sanders isn't likely to be performing one of his famous touchdown dances in the wake of a Fifth Court of Appeals decision on Aug. 29.
A three-judge panel of the Dallas court of appeals ruled in Sanders v. Sanders that the 366th District Court in Collin County erred when it granted Deoin Sanders' motion for partial summary judgment on Pilar Sanders' liability for defamation.
In a defamation suit, Deoin Sanders had alleged that, after their divorce in 2013, Pilar Sanders had made statements on social media, in an online video and on a national television news program that he had physically abused her and their children and had attempted to murder her, according to the Fifth Court's opinion. As noted in the opinion, Deoin Sanders had alleged that the statements damaged his reputation and caused him economic damages.
The trial court had awarded the former NFL star and sports broadcaster $2.2 million in damages and ruled that he could offset the $1 million that the divorce decree required him to pay his ex-wife against the defamation damages award.
The Fifth Court panel reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court, holding that Deoin Sanders failed to establish conclusively his ex-wife's negligence or malice regarding the truthfulness of her statements.
Craig A. Jackson, Pilar Sanders' appellate attorney, said his client argued on appeal that Deoin Sanders is a public figure. If a plaintiff in a defamation suit is a public figure, he must prove actual malice, showing that the defendant made the statement in question with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of its truth. But the court did not have to address that issue, said Jackson, a partner in Brewer Jackson & Lang in Grapevine.
"They basically said there was no evidence of negligence or malice," he said.
One of the interesting legal issues in the case, Jackson said, is the fact that Pilar Sanders could not offer an affirmative defense of truth.
"She still maintains the truthfulness of her statements," Jackson said.
Deoin Sanders contended in his brief to the Fifth Court that the trial court resolved the allegations of abuse after a three-day hearing in the couple's divorce case with a finding that neither party committed family violence. That finding was confirmed in the subsequent jury trial on custody in which the jury, after being instructed it could not award custody to a parent who had committed abuse or family violence, recommended that Deoin Sanders should be the sole managing conservator of his two sons and joint managing conservator of his daughter.
David Keltner, a partner in Kelly Hart & Hallman in Fort Worth, is Deoin Sanders' appellate attorney, and Larry R. Boyd, a director and shareholder in Abernathy, Roeder, Boyd & Hullett in McKinney, represented the former football player at trial and on appeal. Neither Keltner nor Boyd returned phone calls seeking comment.