Veteran mediator Jerry Roscoe was on a relaxing river cruise from Budapest to Bucharest celebrating his 70th birthday on Sunday when he received an urgent phone call.
The voice on the other end asked Roscoe if he would serve as an eleventh-hour mediator in the massive defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News. The start of the trial was hours away, and Dominion planned to force Rupert Murdoch and Tucker Carlson onto the witness stand soon after opening statements, according to people familiar with the matter.
As Roscoe sailed aboard the cruise ship, he didn’t hesitate to accept the unexpected task of brokering a deal to avoid the media law trial of the century.
“I said yes,” Roscoe told CNN on Wednesday, recalling advice his father gave him at the age of 16 about accepting work assignments while on vacation. “My dad told me that if someone needs you, they call you, and if they need you, you go.”
The lead trial attorneys – Justin Nelson for Dominion and Dan Webb for Fox – had negotiated for a settlement over the weekend before Roscoe was brought in, but they were “really far apart” and no deal materialized, one of the people familiar with the matter told CNN.
Over the next day, Roscoe familiarized himself with the historic defamation case, poring over thousands of pages of documents. Then there was intensive “shuttle diplomacy,” with Roscoe oscillating between the two sides, before eventual phone calls and Zoom meetings with everyone together.
Late on Sunday night, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis was notified that the parties hired Roscoe, a mediator at JAMS. Davis soon announced a surprise one-day delay to the trial’s commencement to give the mediator a shot at clinching a deal – though he didn’t seem interested in granting any additional delays beyond that.
On Monday, the frantic negotiations got underway.
In the whirlwind 24 hours that followed, the talks culminated in a historic deal, which was hammered out shortly after 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, averting what would have been a high-wattage trial that would have forced the right-wing talk network to reckon further with the election lies it aired in the wake of the 2020 presidential contest.
“It went down to the wire,” Roscoe acknowledged to CNN.
In addition to speaking to Roscoe, CNN also spoke to multiple people with direct knowledge of the events leading up to the $787.5 million out-of-court deal, the largest publicly known settlement ever for a U.S. defamation case against a media outlet. As part of the agreement, Fox also “acknowledged” the court’s finding that it repeatedly aired false claims about Dominion – but notably, Fox wasn’t required to issue an on-air correction or retraction.
In the lead up to the last-second deal, attorneys for both Fox News and Dominion were fully expecting a trial.
Last week, Dominion had notified Fox News that one of its first witnesses would be Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old Fox Corporation chairman, a person familiar with the matter told CNN. Tucker Carlson, the extremist who hosts Fox News’ 8 p.m. hour, was one of the first people that Dominion planned to put on the witness stand in Wilmington, Delaware.
And after the jury was sworn in Tuesday morning, all signs pointed to trial happening as planned. Dominion lawyer Stephen Shackelford was seen eating at the Subway restaurant in the courthouse’s basement cafeteria during the lunch break, immediately before he was set to deliver opening statements. Members of the newly empaneled jury ate their first – and only – court-provided lunch as well. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Roscoe was finalizing the deal that ultimately averted the six-week trial.
“Presence in the courtroom often tends to crystalize the focus of the risks and benefits of litigation,” Roscoe told CNN. “Once the jury sits down and you’re looking at people who are going to decide your fate, it’s an awakening experience.”
Buzz of a settlement reached new heights on Tuesday afternoon, after the opening statements that were scheduled for 1:30 p.m. were inexplicably delayed, and the jury wasn’t brought back into the courtroom as planned.
After the deal was finalized in the 2 p.m. hour, lawyers quickly drew up the paperwork, which was signed moments before Davis entered the courtroom just before 4 p.m., people familiar with the matter said.
Davis then announced that a resolution had been reached, astonishing observers and eliciting audible gasps from reporters inside the courthouse. He then dismissed the jury – and the case was over.
A deal wasn’t easy to reach. Roscoe, a world-renowned mediator who has even resolved wartime disputes in the Balkans, told CNN that it was among the toughest assignments he has ever faced.
“It was one of the more challenging cases because of the magnitude of the dispute and the visibility,” he said, adding, “I would not characterize any aspect of this mediation as easy.”