John Oliver Sued for Defamation by Litigious Coal Company

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 22, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When John Oliver committed 24 minutes of last week's Last Week Tonight episode to the coal industry in general and Murray Energy Corporation CEO Robert E. Murray in particular, he knew he was courting a lawsuit. "I'm going to need to be careful here," Oliver began, "because when we contacted Murray Energy for this piece, they sent us a letter instructing us to 'cease and desist from any effort to defame, harass, or otherwise injure Mr. Murray or Murray Energy,' and telling us that 'failure to do so will result in immediate litigation.'"

Oliver also followed up his rant by addressing Murray personally, saying, "I know you're probably going to sue me over this. But, you know what? I stand by everything I said." So it's little surprise then, that Murray Energy sued HBO and Oliver for defamation over what they call a "false and malicious broadcast." Instead, the surprise will be if the suit ever makes it to trial.

Coal in Oliver's Stocking

The lawsuit, which includes allegations of defamation, false light, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, says Oliver and the network carried out a "meticulously planned attempt to assassinate the character and reputation" of Murray and is asking for financial damages along with an injunction barring HBO from rebroadcasting the segment. For its part, HBO defended the host and the show, saying, "We have confidence in the staff of Last Week Tonight and do not believe anything in the show this week violated Mr. Murray's or Murray Energy's rights."

"Nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack," the lawsuit claims, apparently not even the 2007 collapse of one of Murray's mines in Utah, an incident in which nine miners died and to which Oliver criticized Murray's response. Murray Energy says Oliver ignored information it sent the show blaming an earthquake for the mine's collapse and disregarded "the efforts Mr. Murray personally made to save the trapped miners."

Coal Company in Court

Murray Energy is no stranger to defamation suits, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Since 2001, Mr. Murray has filed at least nine lawsuits against reporters, editorial writers, a cartoonist, media organizations and radio stations that carried a paid advertisement from an activist group that was critical of Mr. Murray, claiming each time that their actions malign his reputation; threaten the jobs of his employees; and hamper his ability to get financing and negotiate with regulators. None of these cases has made it to trial, although two are still pending. Some have settled and some have been dismissed by the court.

Whether Murray's latest lawsuit makes it to a jury will remain to be seen.

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