John Oliver, HBO Beat Coal Executive's Defamation Lawsuit

The 'Last Week Tonight' host was within his First Amendment rights to criticize a coal baron and his company, the court found.
Courtesy of HBO
John Oliver

Days after returning from HBO's Last Week Tonight winter hiatus, host John Oliver has emerged victorious from a legal fight with the subject of one of his segments.

Robert Murray, Murray Energy and other associated coal companies sued both the cable network and Oliver in June, arguing the host created a "villainous" portrait of the coal baron.

The original segment criticized Murray Energy's practices regarding the safety and health of its employees, described conservative coal baron Murray as a "geriatric Dr. Evil" and featured a man dressed as a squirrel who proclaimed "Eat shit, Bob." The lawsuit prompted a second segment in which Oliver told viewers about the litigation.

The case was remanded to West Virginia state court, where HBO and Partially Important Productions submitted two motions asking the judge to dismiss the matter, one arguing that the challenged statements are protected by the First Amendment and another that the court lacked jurisdiction.

HBO argued Murray failed to state a claim for defamation, claiming the serious portions of the segment were based on judicial opinions and government reports while the humorous jabs at Murray's age and appearance constituted satire that can't be proven false.

Judge Jeffrey Cramer agrees, and on Wednesday he sent a brief letter to the attorneys notifying them of his decision to grant dismissal.

"I find the arguments set forth in the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim and Reply well-founded, appropriate in this matter and will grant the same," writes Cramer. "The Court adopts, with little exception, Defendants' argument in support of their Motion regarding all issues addressed in the same."

Cramer then asked attorneys for HBO, Oliver and producers to prepare a proposed order within 20 days for the court's review. 

Murray Energy sent The Hollywood Reporter a statement Monday: This decision contains absolutely no legal reasoning, whatsoever, and instead blindly adopts the Defendants deeply flawed arguments. This is a flagrant disregard of the law, the facts, and the substantial damages intentionally inflicted by the Defendants. Clearly, this decision is detrimental to our employees, who rely on Mr. Murray and Murray Energy for their continued livelihoods, and to our lenders, customers, and suppliers who depend on our integrity and performance. Accordingly, we will immediately appeal, and we are confident that we will prevail.

Feb. 26, 8:30 a.m. Updated with a comment from Murray Energy.