3:20pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Discovery Beats Defamation Lawsuit Over Reality TV Star's Facebook Postings
Are media companies legally responsible for the harsh things written by their talent on social media? A court ruling out on Wednesday falls short of providing a definitive answer, but will nevertheless satisfy Discovery Communications, which was dragged into a war of words between a current and former reality TV star and has now defeated a lawsuit.
Mykel Hawke and Joseph Teti, who both served in special forces units of the U.S. military before starring in separate television shows for Discovery, are the ones verbally jousting. The years-long dispute between Hawke, who was featured on a program called Man, Woman, Wild, and Teti, who stars on Dual Survival, has taken place in courtrooms across four different states. Here's more on the complicated backstory.
In the case that's the focus of a new ruling, Hawke sued Discovery over things being written on Facebook. He claims that Teti posted to the official Dual Survival Facebook page that "three clinical psychologists have diagnosed Mykel Hawke as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder," that "Mykel Hawke is mentally ill," and that "Mykel Hawke is having his Special Forces Tab revoked by the Arm[y]."
According to Hawke, Discovery was responsible for these postings because it had "failed to take action to stop the defamatory statements from being posted online" and failed to "adequately train personnel in public interaction, when and what types of communications employees should say publicly and/or put into print."
The lawsuit gave U.S. District Court judge Paula Xinis the opportunity to potentially make a provocative decision about media companies and talent in regards to social media, but the complaint is being deemed as a failure on more technical grounds.
The judge faults Hawke with not putting forward sufficient evidence to corroborate the claim that Teti posted the above statements to or from the official Dual Survival Facebook. What's more, the judge is unconvinced that the offending posts involve the defendant.
Hawke's attorney argued that Discovery Communications was responsible for Teti's posts under a theory of respondeat superior, essentially meaning that Teti acted as an agent for the television company. The plaintiff also tried to contend that posts published from Teti's own Facebook page may properly be considered as those of Discovery's.
"To be sure, a principal may be held liable for defamatory statements made by an agent where the agent is acting within the scope of his employment or within the scope of his apparent authority," notes the judge.
However, Xinis continues by noting that the actual entity that contracted for Teti's services on Dual Survival was Discovery Talent LLC. Problem is that Discovery Talent wasn't a defendant, and Hawke failed to articulate a connection between Discovery Talent and Discovery Communications. (A spokesperson tells The Hollywood Reporter that Discovery Talent is a subsidiary.) Had Hawke done so, it might have become something, as the judge nods to Teti's agreement addressing how he couldn't make certain statements on Twitter or Facebook without prior written consent. Here, Hawke fails to establish a relationship, and the judge denies his request for further discovery with the conclusion that he should have done so earlier.
"Accordingly, even if the Court presumes for the sake of argument that the purportedly offensive posts were within the scope of Teti’s employment, the only evidence is that Teti acted as the agent of Discovery Talent and not Defendants," states the opinion (read here). "Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is therefore granted."