MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge ruled in favor of Fox News on Thursday in two separate lawsuits against the network over its retracted coverage of the death of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels in the Southern District of New York granted a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against Fox News and two contributors filed the parents of Rich, a DNC staffer who was fatally shot in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, who live in Omaha, claimed they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after Fox News pushed a discredited right-wing conspiracy theory that their son was involved in the leak of thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks, and was killed because of it.
Rich was shot twice in the back a block from his apartment in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, on July 10, 2016. The murder remains unsolved.
Nearly a year later, in May 2017, Fox News published a story written by co-defendant and reporter Malia Zimmerman, which included the now-debunked claim that investigators had evidence showing Rich leaked the emails in the midst of the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Dismissing their suit entirely, Judge Daniels wrote that Rich’s parents fell short of stating an emotional-distress claim against the network.
The judge agreed with Fox News’ argument that even if their statements about Rich’s death were inaccurate or defamatory, they did not necessarily constitute the extreme and outrageous conduct required for a claim of infliction of emotional distress.
Daniels wrote that because the parents failed to adequate state a claim of infliction of emotional distress, their related conspiracy and aiding and abetting claims must also be dismissed.
The parents had alleged in their suit alleged that Fox News, Zimmerman, and Fox Business guest commentator Ed Butowsky “intentionally exploited this tragedy-including through lies, misrepresentations, and half-truths-with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause Joel and Mary.”
The parents compared the network’s discredited report that Rich leaked sensitive emails to WikiLeaks before his death to burying their son all over again.
“It is understandable that Plaintiffs might feel that their grief and personal loss were taken advantage of, and the traffic death of their son was exploited for political purposes,” Judge Daniels wrote in his 20-page opinion. “However, a general allegation that defendants had an ‘agreement to collaborate against’ plaintiffs cannot form the basis of an [emotional distress] claim; rather, ‘specific instances of each individual’s conduct’ are required.”
Fox News was represented in the case involving Rich’s parents by Williams & Connolly partner Kevin Baine, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
Daniels also granted the network’s motion to dismiss a related suit from private investigator Rod Wheeler, who sued 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Zimmerman and Butowsky in August 2017 over five allegedly defamatory statements, claiming that “his career will likely never recover” from the damage to his reputation done by the Rich article.
Wheeler, who was the only named source in the discredited story, claimed in his federal complaint that the network intentionally misquoted him to help President Donald Trump push “fake news” that would distract from the investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election.
“Because none of the statements can be proven false, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for defamation,” Daniels wrote in an 18-page opinion.
Wheeler argued that criticism he faced in one of Butwosksy’s tweets and from the media and public regarding the Rich article caused his professional and personal contacts to ostracize him, and that his private investigator business suffered from the negative attention brought by the article.
However, Daniels rejected his claims.
“In this case, plaintiff and defendants embarked on a collective effort to support a sensational claim regarding Seth Rich’s murder. Plaintiff cannot now seek to avoid the consequences of his own complicity and coordinated assistance in perpetuating a politically motivated story not having any basis in fact,” the judge wrote.