Liberal HBO comedian John Oliver is facing a defamation lawsuit filed by a powerful Appalachian coal magnate, as a federal district court judge in West Virginia denied a request to throw the case out.
The coal magnate, Bob Murray, filed lawsuits against Oliver and The New York Times, alleging that their portrayal of his coal business was defamatory. Murray says the newspaper and “Last Week Tonight” wrongly portrayed his coal company, Murray Energy, denigrating its record on safety.
On Friday, the judge denied the newspaper’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, and further agreed with Murray that the HBO case be sent to a lower state court for review. HBO had previously been successful in having the litigation moved to federal court.
Although Friday’s decision is procedural in nature, the victories indicate that Murray’s legal team is making sound arguments.
At issue are comments made after a 2007 coal mine disaster at one of Murray’s Utah mines. Nine mine workers died in the incident. A 2012 settlement agreement. signed by Murray, cited four safety violations that contributed to the collapse of the mine, according to the Labor Department. Murray said the settlement was “not an admission of any contribution to the August 2007 accidents.”
In an April editorial, The New York Times wrote that Murray had erroneously claimed the collapse was caused by an earthquake, not safety violations.
John Oliver likewise leveled allegations at Murray, and in his signature fashion, made fun of him on “Last Week Tonight.”
Oliver, who is a frequent detractor of President Trump’s, called Murray a “geriatric Dr. Evil.” Oliver questioned Murray’s business practices and how he treats his workers, and brought up the 2007 collapse of Murray’s mine. Seeming to anticipate a lawsuit, Oliver said, “I know you are probably going to sue me, but you know what? I stand by everything I said.”
Murray Energy Corp. responded with a news release. It read, “The false and defamatory statements in this broadcast severely and destructively impact Mr. Murray … as well as coal mining itself.”
The lawsuit against Oliver alleges the comedian’s attack was a “meticulously planned attempt to assassinate the character” of CEO Bob Murray, “a man who needs a lung transplant, a man who does not expect to live to see the end of this case” and his companies. The suit also claims Murray’s health degraded following the broadcast of Oliver’s latest show and that his website was hacked.
After hearing of the lawsuit, Oliver pounced again. Dedicating a large portion of his broadcast to mocking the coal company, Oliver said he “had to proceed with caution.”
“Look, before we begin: You may remember last week we did a story about coal,” said Oliver. “It turns out that one of the coal companies’ CEOs that we mentioned was not particularly thrilled with how the piece turned out.”
Then, he personally insulted the CEO. Oliver invited a person dressed up as a squirrel onstage to address the potential lawsuit. (Murray allegedly once had a conversation with a squirrel, although his company denies the report.)
“Hey, Bob. Just wanted to say, if you plan on suing, I do not have a billion dollars. But I do have a check for three acorns and 18 cents … it’s made out to ‘Eat Shit, Bob,’” said the squirrel, named “Mr. Nutterbutter.”
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