UPDATED: A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought against Fox News by the parents of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, finding that the suit did not meet the legal requirements to proceed.
Joel and Mary Rich sued the network in March, accusing it of fabricating a story that accused their son of conspiring with WikiLeaks. The suit alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with a contract, and negligent supervision.
In his ruling on Thursday, Judge George Daniels found that the complaint failed to satisfy the elements required under federal law.
“It is understandable that Plaintiffs might feel that their grief and personal loss were taken advantage of, and that the tragic death of their son was exploited for political purposes,” Daniels wrote. “However, a general allegation that Defendants had an ‘agreement to collaborate against’ Plaintiffs cannot form the basis of an IIED claim. … Plaintiffs’ complaint is dismissed in its entirety.”
Fox News published an article on its website on May 16, 2017, asserting that Seth Rich had leaked thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks before he was shot and killed in July 2016. The network later retracted the story, saying it did not meet its standards. Police have said that Rich was likely killed in an attempted robbery.
The suit alleged that political operative Ed Butowsky used the Rich family’s Jewish heritage to gain their trust, reaching them through their temple. Butowsky persuaded them to hire Rod Wheeler, a private investigator, to look into their son’s death, according to the suit. Wheeler was later quoted in the story alleging email exchanges between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks. He then sued the network, saying he was misquoted.
Were he alive, Seth Rich might have grounds for a defamation claim. But Joel and Mary Rich were not defamed in the article, and in order to prove infliction of emotional distress, they had to meet a higher burden, namely that the network’s conduct was “extreme and outrageous.” Daniels ruled that the network’s behavior did not rise to that level.
Judge Daniels also dismissed Wheeler’s suit against Fox News, Butowsky, and reporter Malia Zimmerman. Wheeler claimed that he had not given the quote linking Seth Rich and WikiLeaks in the Fox story, and argued that the fallout from the retracted story had harmed his reputation as an investigator. But the judge noted that Wheeler had given a similar interview to Fox 5, a local affiliate, in which he said a source had linked Rich and WikiLeaks.
The judge found that various other statements made by the reporter and Butowsky were also not defamatory because they were not provably false. Daniels summed up the case by concluding that Wheeler worked with Fox to advance the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, and therefore cannot accuse Fox of defaming him.
“In this case, Plaintiff and Defendants embarked on a collective effort to support a sensational claim regarding Seth Rich’s murder,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiff cannot now seek to avoid the consequences of his own complicity and coordinated assistance in perpetuating a politically motivated story not having any basis in fact.”
Daniels also refused Butowsky’s request for attorneys’ fees and sanctions against Wheeler, writing, “the situation in which all of the parties now find themselves hardly engenders sympathy.”