Will Vilma's Defamation Lawsuit Go All the Way to the 5th Circuit?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 18, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You’ve probably noticed that we seize every chance we can find to write about Louisiana football in this blog. And we thank you for your indulgence.

Usually, the relationship between the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and Louisiana’s gridiron greats is tangential. Sometimes, football players find their way to the appellate court for their off-field pursuits, so we at least feel justified writing about them. This week, we started crossing our fingers that the Saints bounty program — one of the biggest scandals in the NFL history — could eventually make its way to the Fifth Circuit.

As you may have heard, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, claiming that Goodell's repeated, public accusations associating Vilma with the Saints' bounty program are hurting Vilma's reputation and causing him economic harm. Vilma is seeking unspecified monetary damages, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.

Goodell has claimed that Vilma was a leader in an alleged Saints bounty program that offered thousands of dollars for hits which took out opposing teams' star players between 2009 and 2011. Vilma says that he never offered money to any player for intentionally hurting an opponent, reports ESPN.

Vilma has been suspended from the team for the 2012-2013 season for his alleged involvement in the program.

Since Vilma is a public figure, Vilma must prove that Goodell knew his statements were false or that he recklessly disregarded the truth when he made claims about the bounty program. That's a high bar, so Goodell will probably avoid defamation liability. The real value in Vilma's lawsuit, however, is that Goodell and the NFL will likely be forced to turn over evidence regarding the bounty program.

The players' association claims the NFL has refused to provide hard evidence that Vilma or the other sanctioned players tried to intentionally injure targeted opponents; if Goodell and the NFL want to kick Vilma's defamation lawsuit at summary judgment, (either in the district court or the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals), they'll have to show their cards.

If Jonathan Vilma's claims go to trial, we're pretty sure we'll be seeing a Fifth Circuit appeal, no matter what the outcome is. What do you think? Can Vilma win his claim?

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