Just over a year after Hulk Hogan was awarded $140 million in his lawsuit against Gawker (he eventually received a $31 million settlement as part of the bankruptcy proceedings in December), another former Gawker Media site is being sued, and the lawyer who represented Hogan (and numerous other people who sued Gawker and its sites) is again involved. That would be Charles Harder (seen at center above), and this time he’s representing Pregame.com’s Randall James Busack (who goes by RJ Bell) in a lawsuit against Deadspin and new owner Gizmodo Media Group (which itself is owned by Univision) over a June 23, 2016 story by Ryan Goldberg.
Harder and Bell threatened legal action against Deadspin and Goldberg on June 27, 2016; they (along with Mark J. Rosenberg and Joel H. Rosner of New York firm Tarter Krinksy and Drogin LLP) filed the lawsuit Thursday in New York Supreme Court. The complaint lists Gizmodo Media Group, Goldberg and “Does 1-20” as defendants; the complaint says the plaintiffs are unaware of Does 1-20’s identity at this time, and will amend the complaint to identify them.
The complaint alleges defamation, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and tortious interference with contractual relations. It demands compensatory damages of at least $10 million, punitive damages and a permanent injunction against the alleged defamatory statements. Here is the complaint, accessed through the New York Supreme Court’s records site:
The story at issue is “How America’s Favorite Sports Betting Expert Turned A Sucker’s Game Into An Industry,” posted at Deadspin last June with Goldberg’s byline. The complaint says “The Story contains numerous false, fabricated, fictitious, and outright libelous statements about Plaintiffs and their business practices. Among other things, the Story falsely states that Plaintiffs engage in deceptive and predatory business practices by profiting from customers’ betting losses, are paid by sportsbooks, and own sportsbook websites and services, and presents false estimates of Plaintiffs’ profits and expenses in the form of sensational graphs.” Here’s part of Goldberg’s piece that is specifically cited in the complaint and touches on some of those elements:
It’s a can’t-miss business plan, and it pays off twice. First when customers buy the picks, and again when they fork over their money to sportsbooks on those losing bets. This might explain why Pregame is so generous with discounts like “bulk dollars” and half-price coupons, and why Bell trumpets the savings of subscriptions over single-game purchases. Pregame has every incentive to keep buyers in the fold, and keep them betting.
Bell’s complaint also includes allegations that Goldberg proceeded with the story despite Bell saying his questions contained multiple factual errors and refused to let Bell speak to him on background. It also states that the story contains false and defamatory information, namely that Bell profits from customers’ betting losses, that Bell ran Pregame Action and Sharpbettor.ag, and that the story presented incorrect information on pros’ won-loss records and pick expenses.
The lawsuit also alleges that Deadspin was provided with a Pregame executive’s denial of running those other sites before publication, but chose to exclude that from publication, only updated with Bell’s denial of running those after he threatened legal action, and falsely claimed he wouldn’t answer questions about it. It further says that both Gawker Media Group and (later) Gizmodo Media Group were contacted with requests to remove and retract the story, and both refused.
Univision did delete six other Gawker Media posts that were the subject of active litigation in September, including three Deadspin pieces (two on Mitch Williams and one on Chuck Johnson). Shortly after that, Univision chief news officer Isaac Lee told Gizmodo’s J.K. Trotter they deleted the active litigation posts because those were classified as liabilities (and thus, not acquired in the bankruptcy proceedings), but didn’t plan to delete any posts with threatened litigation:
Because we had to decide at that point if we were… going to take down only the ones that had pending litigations or we were going to take down the other ones that had threats of litigations and posed risk to the company. And we hired outside counsel, and we had advice, and we decided to leave those [posts that incurred threats of litigation] and to defend them and to defend them as we will any post in the future. And that happened on Friday. And the only moment where we could start to do that was after the bankruptcy court would give us the asset and make it ours. And at that point is where we, following the procedure of the union agreement, went through the process and took the post down.
…After listening to experts and consulting with legal counsel we were able to keep some up because they would not classify as a liability in the books of the company, but since the mandate was to acquire assets, and not liabilities, regardless of the merit of why they are liabilities, we couldn’t take the other ones.
…Univision is willing to commit that, if we do fearless but also rigorous journalism that meets the standard that we have to meet, we will never delete those posts.
…threats of those posts do not constitute pending litigation. So they would not be qualified in the books as a liability. Since what we were instructed to do was not acquire liabilities but assets, those we could carry with us and defend vigorously.
Lee also said in that interview that Univision employees were indemnified from litigation against them personally. It’s unclear if that applies in this case, given that it happened before Univision acquired the assets of Gawker Media.
Univision has had and will continue to have an indemnity policy that covers all of Univision employees for any litigation if it’s within their course or scope of work.
… I will never let anyone on a news team that is working with me alone in any lawsuit in any battle.
The complaint goes on to claim Deadspin’s “philosophy and practice is to publish false scandal, for the purpose of profit, knowing that false scandal drives readership, which in turn drives revenue, and without regard to the innocent subjects of their stories whose careers are destroyed in the Process.” It cites examples of publishing a video of sexual activity on a bathroom floor, photos of athletes’ genitalia, and a link to the peephole video a stalker recorded of Erin Andrews.
Deadspin editor Tim Marchman declined a request for comment. Goldberg said he hadn’t received the lawsuit yet. Bell sent along this statement:
Pregame.com, the largest American digital media organization comprehensively covering Las Vegas news and odds, considers sacred the protections provided by the U.S. Constitution to the practice of journalism.
It’s my related belief that any journalist who maliciously lies must be held responsible. Not only because punishment is just in such cases, but more importantly because such disregard for journalist standards places the future rights of honest journalists at risk.
A trustworthy press is more important than any individual – and is also more important than any aggrieved party receiving full financial satisfaction. I strongly believe that – even if that aggrieved party is me and my company. Thus, all monies received by Pregame personally from the author of the disputed Story (as a result of Pregame’s libel and defamation compliant filed in the Supreme Court for the State of New York) will be 100% applied to the creation of scholarships for journalism students attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Previous lawsuits against Gawker have reportedly been funded by Peter Thiel. We asked Bell if this was funded by Thiel. He responded “I have a great deal to say about Deadspin’s disregard for the truth. But, that will have to wait. The legal system makes candor concerning an ongoing case too risky. Because of this reality, when it comes to commenting on any specifics related to our $10 Million case against the Defendants, I’m forced to let our publicly available 18-page complaint speak for itself.”
These allegations will have to be proven in court. However, given the outcome of Harder’s Hogan lawsuit with Gawker that forced the sale of Deadspin’s parent company to Univision, there is a strong chance this case could be settled out of court.