SAN FRANCISCO - A federal judge in San Francisco on Friday awarded Planned Parenthood Federation nearly $2.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages from anti-abortion activists who infiltrated meetings and secretly videotaped interviews.
Activists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt created a phony tissue procurement company and used false identities to enter abortion care meetings and Planned Parenthood centers in 2014 and 2015. Daleiden posted excerpts of secretly taped interviews, which Planned Parenthood claims were deceptively edited, online in 2015.
The civil jury award, following a six-week trial, was levied against Daleiden; Merritt; their organization, the Center for Medical Progress; two board members; and the phony company, BioMax.
The jury found in favor of Planned Parenthood on claims of fraud, trespassing, illegal recording, racketeering and breach of contracts in which BioMax and the individuals promised to maintain confidentiality and refrain from fraud at abortion care conferences.
The damages included $870,000 in punitive damages and $469,361 in compensatory damages for Planned Parenthood's costs of changes in security and procedures and other harm. Under the federal anti-racketeering RICO law, compensatory damages will be tripled to $1,405,083, making the total award $2,275,083, according to Planned Parenthood attorney Jeremy Kamras.
Acting Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement, "We are thrilled with today's verdict. David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress intentionally waged a multi-year illegal effort to manufacture a malicious campaign against Planned Parenthood.
"The jury recognized today that those behind the campaign broke the law in order to advance their goals of banning safe, legal abortion in this country, and to prevent Planned Parenthood from serving the patients who depend on us," Johnson said.
Lawyers from the Chicago-based Thomas More Society who defended Daleiden said they plan to appeal. Society Chief Counsel Tom Brejcha said, "This case puts the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech on trial."
Daleiden and Merritt maintained they were undercover journalists seeking to expose the alleged sale of fetal tissue resulting from abortions.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled before the trial, however, that journalism was not a defense against the claims of illegal acts including fraud, trespass and secret recording.
Orrick also ruled in advance that the defendants could not be held liable for any threats or violence against Planned Parenthood staff by third parties that allegedly resulted from the videos. He ruled the defendants could be held liable only for any costs to Planned Parenthood that they directly caused.
Planned Parenthood noted in its statement that investigations in at least 13 states concluded that it did not engage in wrongdoing.
Planned Parenthood Vice President Helene Krasnoff said of the trial defendants, "This group's false claims completely fell apart upon closer investigation, and they've been exposed as part of an extreme political agenda to outlaw abortion in this country."