John Oliver wins case brought by ‘geriatric Dr Evil’
UNITED STATES: In fairness, John Oliver didn’t devote the entirety of his episode on coal last June to skewering Robert Murray, the chief executive of one of America’s largest coal mining companies.
The Last Week Tonight host spent the first half of the 24-minute segment exploring the industry’s decline and poking holes at US President Donald Trump’s numerous promises to bring coal jobs back.
Just after the halfway point, though, Oliver went all in on Murray, the founder of Clevelandbased Murray Energy Corporation. He started by suggesting the coal tycoon was ‘‘a geriatric Dr Evil’’ – complete with side-by-side photo comparison – who appeared to be ‘‘on the same side as black lung’’ by doing away with regulations meant to safeguard his workers.
Oliver also criticised Murray for giving a ‘‘bizarre’’ news conference in the wake of a 2007 collapse at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah. Murray has claimed the accident, which killed six miners, had been caused by an earthquake.
The British comedian ended his segment last June by inviting ‘‘Mr Nutterbutter’’, a man in a giant squirrel suit, to the stage to address Murray directly.
The oversized rodent was a nod to an (unfounded) industry joke that Murray had begun operating his own mines because a squirrel had advised him to. It was also a thumbing of the nose at the coal baron, who had sent Oliver a cease-and-desist letter when the show reached out for comment before the segment.
‘‘Hey, Bob,’’ the man in the squirrel costume told the camera. ‘‘Just wanted to say: If you’re plan- ning on suing, I do not have a billion dollars. But I do have a cheque for three acorns and 18 cents.’’
Mr Nutterbutter then flipped a giant whiteboard to reveal a fake check made out to ‘‘Eat S..., Bob!’’.
Beneath it, the cheque’s memo line read: ‘‘Kiss my a..!’’
‘‘Bob Murray, I didn’t really plan for so much of this piece to be about you, but you kind of forced my hand on that one,’’ Oliver said. ‘‘And I know you’re probably going to sue me over this. But, you know what? I stand by everything I said.’’
That was the end of the seg- ment, but only the beginning of a legal battle that would unfold off camera. True to form, Murray – who has a reputation for being litigious and ‘‘volatile’’ at best – hit back with a defamation lawsuit against Oliver, HBO and Time Warner days after the coal episode aired.
A complaint filed in West Virginia circuit court accused Oliver of attempting to assassinate Murray’s character and reputation.
‘‘Nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack,’’ [the complaint] says, adding that Oliver’s segment was an attempt to advance ‘‘biases against the coal industry’’ and ‘‘disdain for the coal-related policies of the Trump Administration’’.
When Oliver’s writers contacted Murray Energy for comment before airing the segment, the company’s representatives warned them that they were using outdated information and discredited reports to support the show’s arguments, according to the complaint. Nevertheless, it says, Oliver ignored other materials Murray Energy provided that might have set him straight.
Murray’s lawsuit prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia to file an amicus brief for the ages, with section titles such as ‘‘The Ridiculous Case of Hand’’, ‘‘Anyone Can Legally Say ‘ Eat S..., Bob!’ ‘‘, and ‘‘All of John Oliver’s Speech Was Protected by the First Amendment. You Can’t Sue People for Being Mean to You, Bob’’.
‘‘It is apt that one of the plaintiff’s objections to the show is about a human-sized squirrell [sic] named Mr Nutterbutter, because this case is nuts,’’ ACLU West Virginia legal director Jamie Lynn Crofts wrote in the brief. ‘‘As a flamethrower himself, Bob Murray should not be shocked when his own fire occasionally inspires others to fire back ... The place to disagree on important matters of public concern is the court of public opinion, not United States District Court.’’
Crofts argued that Murray’s lawsuit was ‘‘beyond meritless’’, since Oliver’s segment was based on publicly available documents and rooted in satire. Last week, a judge agreed (albeit using more legalese and less snark), and dis- missed the lawsuit against Oliver, HBO and Time Warner.
Murray Energy spokesman Gary Broadbent blasted the dismissal and said the company planned to appeal the decision.
‘‘This decision contains absolutely no legal reasoning whatsoever, and instead blindly adopts the defendants’ deeply flawed arguments,’’ Broadbent said in an email. ‘‘This is a flagrant disregard of the law, the facts, and the substantial damages intentionally inflicted by the defendants. Clearly, this decision is detrimental to our employees, who rely on Mr Murray and Murray Energy for their continued livelihoods, and to our lenders, customers, and suppliers who depend on our integrity and performance.’’
On Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver acknowledged the judge’s dismissal during the opening of the show, recapping the saga and restraining himself from fully gloating, inasmuch as Oliver shows restraint.
The audience cheered as Oliver cautioned that the decision wasn’t final yet – at which point, Mr Nutterbutter appeared on the screen. ‘‘I’ve been advised not to say much more for now,’’ Oliver said, ‘‘so I won’t, because as I think we know, now is not the time for victory laps ...’’
The squirrel shook vigorously.
‘‘... it’s not a time for gloating ...’’ The squirrel’s head shaking continued.
‘‘... it’s not a time for saying, ‘Hey, we won,’ and just rubbing it in the face of the person who lost over and over again ...’’
Here, Mr Nutterbutter held up a large sign that read: ‘‘Eat S..., Bob!’’ – Washington Post its head
John Oliver with ‘‘Mr Nutterbutter’’ during his item mocking US coal industry executive Robert Murray - a nod to an unfounded joke that Murray had begun operating his own mines because a squirrel had advised him to.
Robert Murray has had a case against comedian John Oliver tossed out by a judge.