WHEELING – A federal judge has granted a motion to remand Robert E. Murray’ s lawsuit against HBO and John Oliver back to Marshall Circuit Court.
District Judge John Preston Bailey granted Murray’s motion to remand Aug. 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.
“Where a defamatory statement is made about an executive of a business in his professional capacity, especially in a business setting, such a statement may be seen as defaming that executive’s business if the statement would negatively implicate the business or the manner of the business’ operation,” Bailey wrote
Such a standard may be extended to lower-level employees of a business where there is a clear implication that the defamatory statement about the employees’ behavior would reflect negatively on the operation of the business, according to the order.
“However, where the interrelationship of an executive and his business is so strong that they may not be separated in the mind of a reasonable person, there exists a presumption that defamatory statements that would damage the reputation of the executive in his business capacity would also damage the reputation of the business,” Bailey wrote.
Bailey found that the plaintiff corporations in question were, therefore, properly joined, and the case should be remanded to state court.
“First, Mr. Murray is the CEO and director of each of the plaintiff corporations and is listed as the controller of the mines owned by those corporations,” he wrote. “Not only is Mr. Murray heavily interrelated with these corporations in a formal business sense, but a reasonable person who knows of Mr. Murray, especially in West Virginia or another coal state, would find it nearly impossible to separate Mr. Murray from his corporations and mines.”
With such a strong interrelationship between Murray and his corporations, Bailey wrote, the defamatory statements made about Murray in his professional capacity may be easily seen as negatively implicating the operation of his corporations.
“The allegedly defamatory statements made about Mr. Murray did refer to him in his professional capacity,” he wrote. “First, the Crandall Canyon Statement refers to a collapse at a mine Mr. Murray chaired and operated regarding the cause of the collapse. Second, the Black Lung Statement refers to Mr. Murray in his professional capacity because his decisions regarding Black Lung regulation would be made as the chairman and operator of the mines. The alleged ‘character assassinations’ of Mr. Murray, including the Geriatric Dr. Evil Statement, refer to Mr. Murray in his capacity as a private individual because they bear no relation to his professional conduct.”
However, because the interrelationship between Murray and the corporations is so strong, it is possible that those comments may defame the corporations if it was determined that the comments discredited the way the corporations were operated, according to the order.
“The Crandall Canyon statement implies that the Plaintiff Corporations are run by a dishonest figure, while the Black Lung statement implies a lack of care for the safety of Mr. Murray’s employees,” Bailey wrote. “Even without the character statements, there would be sufficient cause for the Plaintiff Corporations to have a possible chance of success in a defamation action based on comments made about Mr. Murray.”
Murray, along with his corporations, filed the action in Marshall Circuit Court on June 22 after an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver ran that made negative statements regarding Murray.
HBO removed the lawsuit to federal court soon after. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief in the matter, stating that it believed Oliver’s statements were protected by freedom of speech.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia case number: 5:17-cv-00099