An appeals court says North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest can seek monetary damages for a campaign ad run by a group backing his opponent, even though he won the race

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s campaign can seek monetary damages for a television ad run by a group backing his opponent, even though he won the race, a divided state appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.

Forest’s campaign committee sought action against the political arm of the State Employees Association of North Carolina because Forest’s camp says one of the group’s 2012 commercials failed to include identifying information required by a since-repealed law.

The previous “stand by your ad” law directed the TV ad contain a spoken statement identifying the sponsor’s chief executive officer or treasurer and that person’s photograph.

Court documents show there’s evidence that neither occurred in one of the ads run in October 2012 by the Employees Political Action Committee, which backed Democratic nominee Linda Coleman. Forest won the race by 6,900 votes among over 4 million ballots cast, and defeated Coleman again in 2016. Forest is now preparing for a run for governor in 2020. Coleman is running for Congress this year.

The law said a candidate is entitled to damages equal to the “total dollar amount” spent to air the unlawful ad. Superior Court Judge Allen Barbour ruled in 2017 that the Committee to Elect Dan Forest lacked legal standing to sue because there was no evidence of actual damages against the candidate.

In Tuesday’s split decision, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed Barbour’s decision.

Writing the majority opinion, Judge Chris Dillon wrote Barbour ruled that Forest had no damages “apparently because he won the election.’ But the state Supreme Court has held often that someone can sue where a private right have been violated, even when the plaintiff suffered actual damages beyond the breached right, he wrote.

In the “stand by your ad” law, the General Assembly created that right expressly by including an enforcement mechanism to penalize violators, according to Dillon.

“Simply because Mr. Forest won his election does not mean that he did not suffer an injury sufficient in a constitutional sense to confer standing,” Dillon wrote in the opinion, agreed to by Judge Ann Marie Calabria. The two judges also rejected the political action committee’s argument that the ad’s disclosure requirement was an unconstitutional restriction of speech.

Chief Judge Linda McGee, writing a dissenting opinion, said she could find no injury that Forest’s committee received from violations of the ad disclosure law, let alone determine how monetary damages would redress any injury.

McGee also said strong evidence was lacking that Forest’s team notified the State Board of Elections about the potential violation within three days after the elections, as required. The majority opinion considered the evidence credible.

Ardis Watkins, a lobbyist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said the group was disappointed by the ruling but needs more time before deciding whether appeal to the Supreme Court. The justices must take up an appeal if requested because it was a 2-1 decision. Hal Weatherman, a spokesman for Forest’s campaign, said it was pleased with the decision but declined to comment further until the case is complete.

The Forest committee filed its complaint in Wake County court in March 2016 the week before Coleman won the Democratic nomination a second time.