Former coach wins defamation appeal against ESPN

A Michigan court has reinstated a lawsuit brought by a former college gymnastics coach who claims an ESPN reporter defamed him on Twitter and linked him to disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar and a controversial coach.

The state appeals court’s 3-0 decision means the case will go to a jury trial in Isabella County unless both sides reach an agreement.

The court on Thursday found a lack of “minimal due diligence” by investigative reporter Dan Murphy when he referred on Twitter in 2019 to Jerry Reighard, who coached women’s gymnastics at Central Michigan University.

ESPN said Friday that it was evaluating his options. Murphy did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Murphy had tweeted that the Michigan attorney general was investigating elite gymnastics coach John Geddert. He said Geddert was a “close friend” of Nassar and had been accused of physically harming gymnasts.

Murphy quickly followed up with another tweet about Reighard:

“On the same day as the AG announcement, Central Michigan said it would furlough longtime gymnastics coach Jerry Reighard amid an internal review. No details of the review were shared, but Reighard has a long personal and professional relationship with Geddert.”

CMU had stated that the Reighard affair had nothing to do with sexual misconduct or Nassar, who was convicted of sexual assault. But Murphy refused to retract the tweets, according to a summary of the dispute.

He also admitted that he did not attempt to contact Reighard or CMU before posting the tweets.

A few weeks later, Murphy tweeted an update on CMU’s review of Reighard, saying it was “not related” to the Nassar scandal or sexual misconduct.

Judge Eric Janes ruled in favor of ESPN and Murphy and dismissed the case, saying the initial tweets were substantially true. But the appeals court, in a 3-0 decision, said a jury should decide what happened.

“The implication that Reighard’s placement on leave was related to allegations that Geddert had harmed gymnasts physically and mentally tended to damage Reighard’s reputation in order to lower him in the estimation of the community or deter third parties from associating with or treating with him,” the court said. saying.

Media lawyer Herschel Fink said he doubts the decision will apply widely to other cases.

“Any time it comes to libel by implication, it’s going to be a very specific case of facts. … But they found here that the reporter, in his words, had deliberately avoided the truth by not asking some obvious questions,” Fink said.

Reighard was fired by CMU, which had accused him of ignoring medical staff on the injuries. His dismissal lawsuit is still active in Isabella County.

Nassar worked at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympic athletes. He is serving decades in prison for sexual assault and child pornography offenses. Geddert, a former US Olympic coach, killed himself just hours after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced charges against him in 2021.


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