March 24, 2010 / 12:58 AM / 9 years ago

Oprah Winfrey settles defamation suit with headmistress

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - TV host Oprah Winfrey agreed on Tuesday to settle a lawsuit in which she had been accused of defamation by the former headmistress of her South African school for girls.

Oprah Winfrey gives a speech during a dinner held by the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid team at a hotel in Copenhagen, September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Matt Dunham/Pool

A statement issued by lawyers for the two women said they had resolved the dispute “peacefully to their mutual satisfaction.”

Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane claimed in a 2008 suit that Winfrey had damaged her personal and professional reputation in two 2007 statements in which she suggested Mzamane had failed to deal adequately with allegations at the school that students were being abused by a member of her staff.

The popular talk show host opened The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in a town south of Johannesburg in January 2007.

A trial over the case was scheduled to begin on March 29 in federal court in Philadelphia.

After court documents containing hundreds of pages of claims and counter-claims were filed by both sides, Tuesday’s seven-line statement said both women withdrew their allegations.

“Ms. Winfrey testified in her deposition that she did not intend the implications placed on her words by the plaintiff,” the statement said. “Ms. Mzamane testified in her deposition that she has no evidence that Ms. Winfrey knowingly made a false statement about her or entertained serious doubt about what she said.”

Mzamane, who worked at a suburban Philadelphia school at the time of Winfrey’s statements, accused the top-rated American talk-show host of defaming her at a meeting with parents of the school in October 2007 after the abuse allegations surfaced.

That was followed in November 2007 by a media conference that attracted widespread international coverage in which Winfrey said Mzamane had been fired, that she had ignored students’ complaints of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and that she had required students to be “fearful and silent.”

“Simply put, the only reasonable inference to be drawn from the press conference was that Ms. Mzamane was let go because, at best, she disregarded claims of sexual abuse,” the suit said.

Winfrey spent $40 million on the academically selective school, which opened in 2007 and was designed to provide high-quality education to top-performing students from poor families.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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