EXCLUSIVE: Refugee Rescuer Suing CNN for Libel Wins Right to Seek Punitive Damages

A security consultant whose company worked to extract at-risk women from Afghanistan as it fell to the Taliban, saw his business fail after a damaging story ran on CNN. Zak Young sued for libel and this week he won a procedural victory when a Florida judge said he could seek punitive damages.
EXCLUSIVE: Refugee Rescuer Suing CNN for Libel Wins Right to Seek Punitive Damages
U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots load passengers during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) on Aug. 24, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa via Getty Images)
Dan M. Berger

A former special operator who rescued refugees from Afghanistan as it fell to the Taliban in 2021 and whose business was destroyed by a CNN story that he says was false and defamatory, won a significant procedural victory in a Florida court in his libel lawsuit against the network.

In an order allowing Zachary Young to sue for punitive damages, Judge William S. Henry in Bay County quoted startling language from CNN employees' internal emails and texts regarding the story that aired on Nov. 11, 2021.

Mr. Young, a security consultant with extensive military and government security experience, launched an effort to rescue at-risk people, primarily foreign companies' or agencies' employees and family members.

He advertised to attract corporate sponsors for the hefty sums required to perform the kinds of risky extractions usually confined to the pages of technothrillers.

His company rescued more than 20 people, most of them at-risk females, according to his amended complaint filed on Sept. 21, 2022.

Zachary Young. (Courtesy of Zachary Young)
Zachary Young. (Courtesy of Zachary Young)

Two of his clients were Audible, the audiobook company, and financial news giant Bloomberg. Other clients were a German firm that subcontracted for humanitarian missions, and an organization with a campaign to help Afghan Christians.

CNN's story falsely portrayed him as extorting money from desperate people and not necessarily delivering them to safety, he said in his lawsuit.

His business, which he said relied on his reputation and discretion, dried up immediately.

Mr. Young said he was given only two hours to respond before the story was set to air.

He said he told CNN's reporter that the report was inaccurate and that he needed more time to respond to it. The network ran the story anyway.

"And while this court can force CNN to remedy the monetary damage it caused Young," the amended complaint states, "CNN can never remedy the fact that they sacrificed actual human lives for the sake of ratings.

"CNN painted a caricature of Young as a fly-by-night extortionist, but Young is a highly trained and effective security professional. He was unquestionably qualified to extract civilians from Afghanistan, and before CNN's slander, he saved dozens of lives.

"CNN's defamation, however, has rendered Young unable to provide these rare and vital services, and there just aren't many other options out there. CNN's vicious and self-righteous slander removed Young from the equation and condemned an unknowable number of Afghans to death."

Mr. Young's lawyer, Devin "Vel" Freedman of Miami, told The Epoch Times in an email: "Punitive damages are important because they allow the jury to punish wrongdoers for their misconduct and thereby deter both CNN, and other media outlets, from engaging in similar misconduct in the future. The upward limit on punitive damages is about 10 times the compensatory damages figure, so punitive damages can get quite expensive for defendants."

CNN's lead attorney, Deanna K. Shullman of West Palm Beach, Florida, didn't respond to requests for comment emailed by The Epoch Times.

The lawsuit includes a moment-by-moment account of the story that aired, including color screenshots. One of them contains an unflattering photo of Mr. Young laid over an image of what appears to be desperate Afghans trying to get out of the country.

At the bottom, it says, "CNN Investigation: Afghans trying to flee Taliban face black markets, exorbitant fees, no guarantee of safety or success."

Black-Market Services

"In doing so they undeniably make the accusation that Young is the purveyor of black-market services and the one exploiting desperate Afghans," states the lawsuit, filed by Mr. Freedman.

The news story aired on "The Lead with Jake Tapper" on Nov. 11, 2021, and appeared on the CNN website and on Facebook "on or about" Nov. 12, 2021. An article version followed on the website on Nov. 13, 2021.

Devin "Vel" Freedman of Miami, attorney for libel plaintiff Zachary Young. (Courtesy of Zachary Young)
Devin "Vel" Freedman of Miami, attorney for libel plaintiff Zachary Young. (Courtesy of Zachary Young)

Mr. Young demanded on March 17, 2022, that CNN retract the "false and defamatory statements."

CNN issued what it termed a "correction," noting that the words "black market" were in error and didn't apply to Mr. Young. The network apologized.

The story was later deleted from CNN's websites and social media accounts.

In his court order, Judge Henry, of Panama City, Florida, laid out why he was allowing Mr. Young to sue for punitive damages. He referred to evidence submitted by the plaintiff.

"The proffer demonstrates evidence of actual and express malice along with sufficiently egregious or outrageous behavior on the part of defendant's [employees] which was either condoned and ratified by defendant, defendant participated in, or for which defendant was negligent.

"Without detailing each and every piece of evidence proffered, the following summary of the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate defendant's employees' behavior and defendant's acts, participation or negligence which support the court's conclusion."

'What a Punchable Face'

Judge Henry listed "the manner that the segments were pieced together" with chyrons scrolling along the bottom of the screen, the "tone and tenor," and the implication that Mr. Young engaged in "black-market operations" and charged "exorbitant prices."

Judge Henry cited the fact that Mr. Young had informed the defendant in advance that there were inaccuracies in the story.

He said: "The internal emails/messages between defendant's employees that indicate an animus towards and a motivation to harm [plaintiff]—'We gonna nail this Zachary Young [expletive],' 'what a punchable face,' ... 'it's your funeral bucko,' and 'he's a [expletive].'"

Judge Henry's order contained the unexpurgated invective. He continued, noting the network's rush to air the story without complete information, clearing up the questions Mr. Young raised or allowing him to respond fully.

Judge Henry stated other internal communications that suggested news employees knew that the story had problems.

They included comments about the story, such as that it was "very much not ready for prime time"; it was "full of holes like Swiss cheese" and wasn't "fleshed out for digital"; and "pretty flawed." Other messages stated, "We need to pause this until we find out"; "We should consider foregoing the write and just having the video programmed"; and "My fundamental question is not answered but on TV it is less of a problem."

Members of the Taliban on patrol in a pickup truck in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 30, 2021. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the Taliban on patrol in a pickup truck in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 30, 2021. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

The story was approved by CNN's oversight committee and legal department, containing senior upper-level executives, Judge Henry wrote.

Some internal messages expressed surprise that an upper-management review panel—including representatives of CNN's legal, news, and standards and practices departments— approved the story.

Judge Henry cited CNN's omission or burying of pertinent facts that its employees knew "especially as it relates to plaintiffs, specifically that operators had been successful in extracting individuals and that plaintiffs didn't work directly with individuals but rather only for sponsors."

And, he said, CNN republished the on-air segment, published the online article, and disseminated them through Facebook and Twitter posts "with very limited retraction."

In his order, Judge Henry permitted Mr. Young to sue for punitive damages and add "allegations as to republication of the segment on the show hosted by Jim Acosta."

The evidence put forth by Mr. Young's team provided a reasonable basis to establish that CNN either knew statements were false, published them while possessing contradictory information, or published them "with reckless disregard despite awareness of their probably falsity," Judge Henry wrote.

The judge said the plaintiff establishes "actual malice" and "express malice."

Actual malice is defined by USlegal as "a statement made with a reckless disregard for truth."

Express malice is when the statement is made with intent to harm.

"In total," Judge Henry said in his court order, "plaintiffs have proffered evidence of ill will, hostility, evil intent on the part of defendant's employees in putting together and airing the on-air segment and digital media pieces."

Dan M. Berger mostly covers issues around Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for The Epoch Times. He also closely followed the 2022 midterm elections. He is a veteran of print newspapers in Florida and upstate New York and now lives in the Atlanta area.