Oprah Settles Defamation Lawsuit

Trial was set to begin in Philadelphia next Monday

By MARYCLAIRE DALE
|  Wednesday, Mar 24, 2010  |  Updated 4:03 AM CDT
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Oprah Settles Defamation Lawsuit

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"Behind the Scenes: Oprah's 25th Season" sounds exciting.

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Oprah Winfrey has settled a defamation lawsuit with the headmistress she had accused of performing poorly at her South African girls school, where some students claimed they were abused, lawyers said Tuesday.

Former headmistress Nomvuyo Mzamane claimed Winfrey defamed her in remarks made in the wake of the 2007 sex-abuse scandal at the school. The headmistress said she had trouble finding a job afterward, she alleged in the suit.

A trial had been set to start next week, and Winfrey and several schoolgirls were expected to testify in the high-profile suit.

A joint statement released Tuesday by lawyers for both sides said Winfrey and Mzamane met "woman to woman" and resolved their differences.

"The two parties met woman to woman without their lawyers and are happy that they could resolve this dispute peacefully to their mutual satisfaction," read the statement, which didn't disclose details of the settlement.

The genesis of the suit came about in 1997 when Winfrey claimed that she had “lost confidence” in Mzamane after a dorm matron at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy was charged with abusing six students.

Winfrey has called the allegations crushing given her own stated history of childhood sexual abuse.

The dorm matron, Tiny Virginia Makopo, has since pleaded not guilty to 14 charges. Mzamane claimed she didn't know about any sexual abuse.

Mzamane, born in Lesotho, formerly worked at the private Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia and was living in the city when she filed suit two years ago. She earned $150,000 a year as the head of Winfrey's academy.

Winfrey had planned to defend her remarks about Mzamane on free speech and other grounds, arguing she merely voiced her opinions.

Mzamane's lawyers, who noted Winfrey's huge media reach, contended listeners would think the remarks were based on facts she had gleaned from the school's internal investigation.

Winfrey, as the named defendant, would have had to attend the trial each day. She had rearranged the taping of her Chicago-based daily TV talk show, her lawyers said.

Winfrey, in court papers, said she had planned to hire nurses to serve as dorm matrons for the 150 seventh- and eighth-grade girls who were selected from impoverished backgrounds to attend her school. Mzamane instead hired eight young women from a local company called Party Design, she said.

"These young women were later found to be totally unqualified to handle the position, something Ms. Mzamane had been warned about," Winfrey's lawyers wrote.

As the school's inaugural year unfolded, Makopo attacked another dorm parent, injured three people while driving a golf cart after a champagne party at Mzamane's home and retaliated rather than apologize to girls who complained of mistreatment, while Mzamane did little or nothing, Winfrey's lawyers had alleged in their trial memo.

Forbes last year listed Winfrey's net worth at $2.7 billion.

However, for trial purposes, lawyers stipulated the amount at $1.2 billion.

The academy now serves about 330 girls.

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