To close out the latest episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” over the weekend, comedian John Oliver and a host of extras performed a more than four-minute song and dance routine heaping insults on Bob Murray, whose company is one of the largest coal operators in West Virginia.
The head of Murray Energy had filed a defamation lawsuit against Oliver and HBO in 2017 for a piece it aired about the coal industry and Murray’s personal lobbying with President Donald Trump. The lawsuit was dropped recently, as Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy.
Most of what Oliver had to say in Sunday’s toe-tapper can’t be reprinted here, but some of the tamer bits claim Murray fired a rocket full of puppies into space, was responsible for the 1994 attack on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and started World War I by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand.
Oliver refers back to specific wording from an original West Virginia circuit court victory that, stripped of the legalese, essentially says making jokes about public figures is legal. (Murray appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court before dropping the lawsuit.)
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (often referred to as SLAPP suits) were the topic of Oliver’s show. Oliver laid out how people in positions of power with considerable resources file lawsuits they often know they can’t win, but will tie defendants up in legal proceedings and drown them in court costs. The goal is to make the vulnerable wary, even scared, of trying to stand up to powerful people or organizations in the future.
It’s quite possible Murray didn’t view his lawsuit against Oliver as SLAPP litigation, although Oliver certainly did. Oliver said the case was exhausting, his legal team had to pay $200,000 in court costs, and the show’s insurance premiums to protect against libel settlements tripled. All that for a lawsuit he actually won and then was dropped on appeal. And Oliver was aware Murray may very well take him back to court, saying “Here we go again” as he picked up a microphone and headed over to a large stage where dancers in top hats waited.
Part of Oliver’s point, of course, was that most ordinary people don’t have the backing of a corporate behemoth like HBO when they’re targeted by a SLAPP suit. The lawsuits are a scare tactic, he said, adding that scare tactics can be effective when ordinary people get dragged through the civil litigation process. He also noted the lawsuit was filed in West Virginia, even though Murray’s corporate headquarters aren’t located there, nor is Oliver’s studio.
But West Virginia is one of 20 states that doesn’t have anti-SLAPP legislation, and Murray Energy does significant business here, making it a ripe venue for this type of legal action.
It’s worth asking why West Virginia doesn’t have laws to weed out frivolous lawsuits aimed at disenfranchising the less powerful. When lobbyists and business interests, for years, decried West Virginia as a “judicial hellhole,” why was nothing done to address this issue? Was it because they were only concerned about large settlements against corporate interests?
The civil court system is in place so that all people can obtain some sort of justice or accountability when wronged. Just as getting a large settlement from a corporation for slipping and falling in a department store is viewed as abuse, so is filing litigation to intimidate, financially drain and wear out those who are simply exercising their rights.
The West Virginia Legislature should consider anti-SLAPP legislation in the upcoming session.