A conservative Wisconsin newspaper publisher is undoubtedly bringing a cold case to a local jury that ordered a liberal activist who owns a brewery to pay $750,000 in the state’s largest libel verdict.
The previous record for a libel lawsuit in Wisconsin was $450,000, said James Friedman, attorney for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.
On Friday, an Oneida County jury needed just three hours – including a lunch break – to convict Kirk Bangstad, the owner of Minocqua Brewing Co Pay $750,000 for defaming Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker in posts on the brewery’s popular social media.
The 13-member jury concluded, among other things, that Bangstad had insulted Walker by calling him a “crook” and a “misogynist.”
Bangstad, who operates a federal super PACHe was also found to have defamed Walker by claiming he had done so in a Facebook post involved in elder abuse and committed further crimes against family members so that he could inherit the newspaper business.
According to the jury’s verdict, Bangstad and his brewery must pay $320,000 in compensatory damages, and Bangstad is ordered to pay $430,000 in punitive damages out of his own pocket for his Facebook post about crimes against family members. The jury concluded that Bangstad acted “maliciously” with this August 22, 2022 post.
Bangstad, who ran unsuccessfully for the Wisconsin Assembly as a Democrat in 2020, declined to discuss the case. The Lakeland Times editorial page is conservative.
“I’ll talk to the Journal Sentinel, but I’d rather not talk to you,” Bangstad said said columnist Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network. Bangstad’s super PAC recently asked the new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court to eliminate funding for the state’s four taxpayer-funded school voucher programs and independent charter schools.
Bangstad, owner of Minocqua Brewing, plans to appeal the ruling
He said on Facebook that he would appeal the jury’s verdicts.
“I must trust that Wisconsin’s judicial system – particularly its appellate system – will ultimately be ‘fair’ in this case,” Bangstad wrote. “I have to believe that because I still believe in America, Wisconsin and our institutions.”
“And years ago, before Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, our institutions were the envy of the world because they were strong and trusted our citizens.”
On Friday he put it more clearly: Attack on Oneida County District Judge Leon Stenz: “In short, this Oneida County judge had it in for us.”
Matthew Fernholz, Walker’s attorney, said he was pleased with the jury’s conclusions.
“We believe it was a solid jury verdict,” Fernolz said. “It should be maintained.”
Friedman, the attorney for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said at least two cases were awarded $450,000, the previous record for the state a 1992 case against the Milwaukee Sentinel and a more recent one about a book that claims 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting never happened.
“I’m pretty sure there’s never been a million-dollar verdict in a defamation case in Wisconsin,” said Friedman, an attorney at Godfrey & Kahn. “I think that’s the biggest thing right now.”
What’s interesting about the case – besides the size of the jury verdict – is the role of the newspaper in the case.
Typically, a newspaper is the target of a libel lawsuit, not the person who filed it.
“I don’t remember a newspaper or news outlet suing anyone for defamation,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I can’t think of anything.”
Minocqua Brewing is known for “progressive beers” like “Bernie Brew”
Bangstad drew attention for his outspoken political stance, hanging a giant “Biden/Harris” sign outside the brewery and sparring with local government authorities.
In 2020, he began selling “progressive beer” under names like “Bernie Brew” and “Fair Maps” and launched the Minocqua Brewing Co. SuperPAC in 2021.
The PAC has funded a lawsuit against the Waukesha school district over its lifting of COVID precautions and another alleging that three Wisconsin Republicans conspired to stop Democrat Joe Biden from becoming president.
Walker and Lakeland Printing Co. filed a defamation lawsuit against Bangstad and Minocqua Brewing in May 2021 after Walker became a frequent target of Bangstad on his popular social media, where he frequently posts about Wisconsin politics.
Minocqua Brewing has 82,000 followers on Facebook. Bangstad soon began collecting money from the litigation.
In its verdict, the jury found that Bangstad and his brewery owed $40,000 for calling Walker a “crook” and $40,000 for calling him a “misogynist.” The jury said Walker deserved $200,000 in compensatory damages for the post about his family and $430,000 in punitive damages.
Contact Daniel Bice at firstname.lastname@example.org, on X, formerly known as Twitter, @DanielBice, or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: The owner of Minocqua Brewing Co. was ordered to pay $750,000 for defamation