Coal King Fights to Move John Oliver Dispute Back to State Court

Last Week Tongiht with John Oliver - HBO-Publicity 1-H 2017
Courtesy of HBO

The coal baron who was skewered by John Oliver on HBO's Last Week Tonight is fighting the host's effort to move their legal battle to federal court.

Robert Murray and several of his companies sued Oliver, HBO and Time Warner in June in West Virginia state court — prompting a second segment in which Oliver told viewers about the suit.

Murray filed an emergency motion asking the court for a "gag order" to keep Oliver from rebroadcasting the piece or talking about the lawsuit, claiming it is "unfairly tilting public opinion" in the comedian's favor and inciting harassment.

"Plaintiffs are quickly learning firsthand about the phenomenon that Time and Fortune magazines have dubbed the 'John Oliver Effect,'" writes attorney Jeffrey Grove in the motion. "Murray Energy’s website has been overrun with messages of 'Eat Shit, Bob.'"

HBO had the case removed to federal court and argued the motion for a temporary restraining order was an attempt to "chill constitutionally protected speech." Before U.S. District Court judge John Bailey rules on that issue, he'll have to decide whether state or federal court has jurisdiction here because Murray is fighting the removal.

Robert Fitzsimmons, attorney for HBO, argued that because neither Murray, Oliver nor HBO reside in West Virginia, removing the case to federal court is proper. Four subsidiaries named as plaintiffs are based in the state, but Fitzsimmons argues they aren't real parties in interest.

"The Complaint asserts claims for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress," writes Fitzsimmons. "Here, the Complaint sets forth no possible basis of relief upon which the Marshall Coal Company, the Marion County Coal Company, the Monongalia County Coal Company, and the Harrison County Coal Company could recover against Defendants."

HBO argues that the lawsuit is focused on statements directed at Murray individually and Murray Energy, and doesn't allege any statements were directed at the subsidiaries. "Under both the First Amendment and West Virginia law, the only party entitled to assert a claim for defamation is the party at whom the allegedly false statements are 'specifically directed,'" writes Fitzsimmons in a July 21 opposition to Murray's motion to remand the case to state court.

Meanwhile, Murray argues that HBO and Oliver are avoiding the key issue: whether defamation of a CEO hurts that company's business.

"Defendants know that they cannot in good faith contend that false statements that the CEO of a company lied about the cause of death of coal mining employees killed while working for his organization somehow do not reflect upon that company's coal mining business," writes Grove. "So, rather than concede the obvious, and thereby effectively consent to remand, Defendants instead pretend that their false statements are not about the life and death of employees."

The full filing is posted below.