Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News on Friday, arguing the cable news network, in an effort to boost faltering ratings, falsely claimed that the voting company had rigged the 2020 US presidential election.
The lawsuit is part of a growing body of legal action filed by the voting company and other targets of misleading, false and bizarre claims spread by former president Donald Trump and his allies in the aftermath of his election loss to Joe Biden.
Those claims helped spur on rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 in a violent siege that left five people dead, including a police officer. The siege led to Mr Trump's historic second impeachment.
Dominion argues that Fox News, which amplified inaccurate assertions that Dominion had altered votes, “sold a false story of election fraud in order to serve its own commercial purposes, severely injuring Dominion in the process”, according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by The Associated Press.
“The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” the lawsuit said. “ … If this case does not rise to the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing does.”
Even before Dominion’s lawsuit on Friday, Fox News had already filed four motions to dismiss other legal action against its coverage. And anchor Eric Shawn interviewed a Dominion representative on air in November.
“Fox News Media is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism, and we will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit in court,” it said in a statement on Friday.
There was no known widespread fraud in the 2020 election, a fact that a range of election officials across the country – and even Mr Trump's attorney general, William Barr – have confirmed.
Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, key battleground states crucial to Mr Biden’s victory, also vouched for the integrity of the elections in their states.
Nearly all the legal challenges from Mr Trump and his allies were dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which has three Trump-nominated justices.
Still, some Fox News employees elevated false charges that Dominion had changed votes through algorithms in its voting machines that had been created in Venezuela to rig elections for the late dictator Hugo Chavez.
On-air personalities brought on Trump allies Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani who spread the claims and then amplified those claims on Fox News’s social media platforms.
Dominion said in the lawsuit that it had tried repeatedly to set the record straight but was ignored by Fox News.
The company argues that Fox News, a network that features several pro-Trump personalities, pushed the false claims to explain away the former president’s loss. The cable giant lost viewers after the election and was seen by Mr Trump and some supporters as not being supportive enough of the Republican.
Lawyers for Dominion said Fox News’s behaviour differs greatly from that of other media outlets that reported on the claims.
“This was a conscious, knowing business decision to endorse and repeat and broadcast these lies in order to keep its viewership,” said lawyer Justin Nelson, of Susman Godfrey.
Though Dominion serves 28 states, until the 2020 election it had been largely unknown outside the election community. It is now widely attacked in conservative circles, seen by millions of people as one of the main villains in a fictional tale in which Democrats nationwide conspired to steal votes from Mr Trump, the lawsuit said.
Dominion’s employees, from its software engineers to its founder, have been harassed. Some have received death threats. And the company has suffered “enormous and irreparable economic harm”, its lawyers said.
One employee, Eric Coomer, told the AP he had to go into hiding over death threats because of the false claims. He has sued the Trump campaign, conservative media columnists and conservative media outlets Newsmax and One America News Network.
Dominion has also sued Mr Giuliani, Mr Powell and the chief executive of Minnesota-based MyPillow over the claims. A rival technology company, Smartmatic USA, also sued Fox News over election claims for a similar sum of money. Unlike Dominion, Smartmatic’s participation in the 2020 election was restricted to Los Angeles County.
Dominion lawyers said they have not yet filed lawsuits against specific media personalities at Fox News but the door remains open. Some at Fox News knew the claims were false but their comments were drowned out, lawyers said.
“The buck stops with Fox on this,” lawyer Stephen Shackelford said.
“Fox chose to put this on all of its many platforms. They rebroadcast, republished it on social media and other places.”
The suit was filed in Delaware, where both companies are incorporated, though Fox News is headquartered in New York and Dominion is based in Denver.