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U.S. jury told libel case against HBO was 'grossly irresponsible'

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By Tom Brown

NEW YORK, May 7 - A lawyer for HBO said on Thursday that a libel case brought against the Time Warner Inc subsidiary by a British sporting goods company was groundless and maybe even defamatory.

The comments from HBO lawyer Dane Butswinkas, in which he dismissed the charges against his client as "grossly irresponsible," came in his closing arguments in a trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The trial began on April 13 over a report called "Children of Industry," which first aired on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" in 2008.

Journalists who worked on the report, including veteran TV newsman Bernard Goldberg, had been accused of "fraud" and subjected to nothing short of "full-fledged character assassination," Butswinkas said.

A lawyer for Mitre Sports International, which brought the lawsuit against HBO, countered that it was anything but groundless.

The stakes are high because lawyers for Mitre said before the trial began that they were seeking "tens of millions of dollars" in punitive damages from HBO.

Mitre filed its libel claims on grounds that the HBO report portrayed it as using, or turning a blind eye to others using, child labor in the manufacture of Mitre soccer balls in India.

It also filed its complaint because Mitre, a unit of Britain's Pentland Group, was the only soccer ball brand named in "Children of Industry."

Pentland claims to stand at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate child labor from the sporting goods industry.

Mitre's case against HBO centered largely on claims that some children shown hand-stitching Mitre soccer balls in the report, for 5 cents per hour or less, were not actual child stitchers. The company's lawyers produced sworn depositions from three of the children to bolster its contention that children were induced to pretend on camera that they were underage workers.

HBO disputed those claims and countered that child laborers in Jalandhar, India, where much of "Children of Industry" was filmed, live in what Butswinkas described as a "climate of fear" and were coerced into signing false affidavits.

Mitre lawyer Lloyd Constantine circled back to what he told jurors at the start of the trial in his own closing arguments on Thursday, saying "Children of Industry" was nothing but "a pack of lies targeting Mitre."

HBO may have taken two years to produce the report, he said, but all it came up with was "clever staging" and "fabrication."

The case is Mitre Sports International Limited v. Home Box Office Inc in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-09117. (Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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