MANHATTAN (CN) – In a lawsuit filed against Fox News and two contributors, the parents of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich compared the network’s discredited report that he leaked emails to WikiLeaks before his death to burying their son all over again.
Rich's parents, Joel and Mary Rich, allege in a 34-page complaint filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court that "Fox News, Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman, and Fox News contributor and political operative 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 complaint, brought by lead attorney Eli Kay-Oliphant of Chicago firm Massey & Gail, claims that both parents suffer 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 Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks, and killed because of it.
A onetime staffer for the DNC, Rich was shot twice in the back, a block from his apartment in D.C.'s Bloomingdale neighborhood, on July 12, 2016. The murder remains unsolved.
Nearly a year later in May 2017, Fox News published a story written by co-defendant Zimmerman, which included the now-debunked claim that investigators had evidence showing Rich leaked thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks in the midst of the 2016 presidential election.
Although Fox retracted the story a week later, the conspiracy theory was repeated by leading conservatives like Newt Gingrich and popular right-wing broadcasters including Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones of InfoWars.
Rich's parents, who live in Omaha, Nebraska, ache in complaint, "Imagine living in a nightmare that you can never wake up from. Imagine having to face every single day knowing that your son was murdered. Imagine you have no answers – that no one has been brought to justice and there are few clues leading to the killer or killers.”
A year after their son's death and two months after Fox News’ report, the parents described the blowback from the network’s initial narrative.
"Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint alleges Fox News continued to milk the sham story for ratings and their son’s death was turned into “political football.”
"Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth's legacy. It just won't stop," his parents say in the lawsuit.
The Riches seeks punitive and compensatory damages for claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, aiding and abetting intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy to commit intentional infliction of emotional distress, and tortious interference with a contract. In addition to attorney Kay-Oliphant, they are also represented by lawyers from the New York City firm Susman Godfrey.
Butowsky, named as co-defendant in the complaint, allegedly depicted himself as the story's secret puppet master in an email to various Fox News producers and on-air talent in New York – including Steve Doocy, Gavin Hadden, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade – writing, "I'm actually the one who's been putting this together but as you know I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility.”
The email allegedly continued, "One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion like trump [sic] with the Russians."
According to the complaint, Butowsky used Rich’s parents’ Jewish heritage and community ties to gain a favorable introduction to them, posting on Facebook that he was "looking to connect with anyone Jewish in Omaha Nebraska."
The lawsuit also aims to hold Fox News liable for its negligent supervision and retention of Zimmerman and non-party Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and retired detective who was the only named source for the retracted Rich story.
Attorneys for defendants did not immediately respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
Wheeler sued Twenty-First Century Fox, Fox News, Zimmerman and Butowsky in August 2017 for defamation, claiming that "his career will likely never recover" from the damage to his reputation from the article.Follow @jruss_jruss
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.