Hunting Group Faces Defamation Liability | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Hunting Group Faces Defamation Liability

(CN) - The ousted head of Safari Club International can advance claims that it defamed him with accusations that he used his title to commit adultery, a federal judge ruled.

The Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights of hunters and wildlife conservation boasts 55,000 members and 190 membership chapters worldwide.

Lawrence "Larry" Rudolph, a Pennsylvania dentist who belonged to Safari Club for about 25 years, served as its president from 2009 to 2011 and acted as its chief spokesman.

Rudolph claimed that another Safari member, Paul Babaz "circulated false rumors" about him at the club's annual convention in Las Vegas last year.

Those rumors alleged that Rudolph was having a long-term affair with a woman in Atlanta, and that he used his title as president to seduce her, according to the complaint.

Babaz also allegedly whispered that Rudolph was in danger of losing his Weatherby Foundation award because of his "adulterous behavior," and that Rudolph had threatened to fire the host of the club's TV show and cancel the program.

Rudolph said he and Babaz ultimately had a confrontation and that Babaz then filed a false Board of Inquiry (BOI) petition, alleging that Rudolph "acted improperly" at both the convention and a 2006 hunt in Mexico.

The inquiry board issued its findings of a violation in May 2012 and recommended sanctioning Rudolph, according to the complaint. The document allegedly contained several other claims that neither Babaz nor any other club member had submitted via petition.

Rudolph said he had been campaigning to be the group secretary for the 2012-13 term, and that the board "collectively decided" that Chairman Ralph Cunningham would publicly announce Rudolph's charges at the election meeting in Washington, D.C., where nearly 160 board members had assembled.

At an Aug. 25 board meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the board allegedly voted to expel Rudolph from the club and remove his name from all record book entries and awards.

Rudolph sued Safari Club, Cunningham and five other members - Larry Higgins, Scott Chapman, Joyce Hanley, David Small, and John Whipple - for defamation in the Western District of Pennsylvania, claiming that they intentionally made him "suffer harm in his home state." The club and the individual members filed separate motions to dismiss Rudolph's amended complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab refused to dismiss Rudolph's claim for defamation by innuendo. The ruling notes that Rudolph failed to provide the letter in which Whipple allegedly portrayed him as "a dishonest hunter and man" and approved of all the underlying defamatory charges.

"Without the correct letter and the challenged language in front of it, this court cannot decide this issue," Schwab wrote.

The judge dismissed the claims against the individual members, however.

"The court finds that plaintiff failed to allege or otherwise establish that the individual defendants aimed their conduct at Pennsylvania," Schwab wrote. "As noted above, the plaintiff has established the individual defendants wanted plaintiff banished or eliminated from the worldwide organization of Safari Club, not merely a local (meaning a Pennsylvania-based) chapter. Given plaintiff's allegations concerning the 'political motive' of the individual defendants, these defamatory statements would have been made during the board meetings regardless of the number of Pennsylvanians (if any) who participated in the board meeting. Per plaintiff, the individual defendants' goal was to publish the defamatory statements to the board members so that plaintiff would lose the election and his membership; not to rout him from Pennsylvania membership."

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