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Monday, July 7, 2014

How Not to Sue for Defamation (And How Not to Draft a Complaint)

From Deadspin, I learned of a delightful new lawsuit from New York. The Deadspin post's title, "Yankees Fan Caught Sleeping in Stands Sues Everyone for Defamation," sums up the lawsuit nicely.

Here is the video that gave rise to the lawsuit, where ESPN Announcers Dan Shulman and John Kruk (or "Kruck" - according to parts of the complaint) discover and comment on the plaintiff, Andrew Rector:

Through the magic of Scribd, a portion of the complaint is available. I say "a portion" because the document does not include a claim for damages nor does it appear to have a space for the plaintiff's attorney to sign. But even though the document purports to be the statement of facts for the lawsuit, the final paragraphs of the document veer into discussions of the plaintiff's legal theory, so at least something can be said about the merits of the claim. Moreover, CBS reports that the plaintiff is seeking 10 million dollars in damages.

How solid is Rector's claim?

First of all, Rector needs to show that the defendants made false statements about him. Here is the portion of the complaint where Rector attempts to do this:

Announcers like like Dan Shulman and John Kruck [sic] unleashed avalanche of [sic] disparaging words against the person of and concerning [sic?] the plaintiff. These words include, but not limited [sic] to "stupor, fatty, unintelligent, stupid" knowing and intending the same to be heard and listened to by millions of people all over the world, including people that know the plaintiff in person or interacted with the plaintiff."
I invite you to watch the video above to see whether Kruk and Shulman use any of those quoted words (spoiler: they don't). Of course, Rector did not limit his claim to Kruk and Shulman -- he said that "announcers like" them were responsible for saying those words. But if Rector is alleging defamation arising from these particular words, he should probably include those words in his complaint. Additional portions of the complaint refer to statements by other parties who are not at all affiliated with the defendants, including a reference to the headline of this post at Not Sports Center.

Contrary to what Deadspin claims, Rector has not sued everybody. If he is going to claim defamation, he needs to sue the people who have made the statements he claims are defamatory.

Beyond his failure at figuring out who to sue, Rector is going to have some troubles proving that the statements were false statements of fact rather than statements of opinion. In general, people can make statements of opinion about other people and avoid defamation liability if they make the basis of their opinion clear.

Here, the commentators were remarking on Rector as his sleeping person was displayed onscreen. Kruk and Shulman made cracks about Rector's neck probably hurting and noted that he wasn't watching their coverage. Even if they'd made the harsh statements the complaint alleges, remarks like "stupid" and "fatty" would be best classified as statements of opinion even if these opinions are not favorable.

Rector's defamation claim is most likely doomed to fail on the merits. And this should not surprise anybody, even those without legal knowledge. A cursory glance at the complaint reveals that it is rife with errors in spelling and grammar. The complaint meanders from one claim to another, focusing on several disparaging statements, moving to discussion about the defendants, and then returning to a discussion of of more disparaging statements.

Rector's defamation complaint is a perfect storm of bad legal arguments presented in an incomprehensible fashion. I look forward to following the lawsuit for the rest of its (undoubtedly short) existence.

For those who are interested, here is the portion of the complaint available on Scribd:

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