Podcasts often rely on informal and unscripted dialogue, a dynamic that frequently results in free-spirited and far-ranging discussions. However interesting, though, these conversations are not insulated from the reach of defamation law.
Just ask MLB umpire Joe West.
On Tuesday, New York trial judge John Kelley ruled that former MLB catcher Paul Lo Duca must pay West $500,000, plus interest, for defamatory remarks Lo Duca expressed during a podcast. While retelling an anecdote from his playing days, Lo Duca suggested that West’s calling of balls and strikes had been influenced by bribes, with pitcher Billy Wagner supposedly letting West use one of his vintage automobiles in exchange for favorable calls. (There is no evidence that this actually happened.)
The details of the dispute are worth considering. In 2019, The Action Network published a podcast in which Lo Duca, who played for the New York Mets in 2006 and 2007, recalled catching for Wagner in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies when West was the home plate umpire. As retold by Lo Duca, he and Wagner chatted in the clubhouse after West had called three Phillies batters out on strikes.
According to the transcript referenced in West’s complaint, Lo Duca made the following remarks:
“We get back into the clubhouse, and I’m like, ‘What the f— just happened just right now?’ and Wagner just winks at me.
I’m like, ‘What’s the secret?’
He’s like, ‘Joe loves antique cars.’
I’m like, ‘Really?’
He goes, ‘Yeah, so every time he comes in town, I lend him my ‘57 Chevy so he can drive it around.’
And I’m like, ‘What?’
He goes, ‘Yeah, so then he opens up the strike zone for me.’
I’m like, ‘This guy’s been throwing me out for the last 10 years of my life, and all I needed to do was rent him a ’57 Chevy?’”
These statements sparked Lo Duca’s co-host to suggest that “Major League Baseball should launch an investigation.”
West’s attorneys argued these remarks were categorically untrue and damaging to West’s reputation. West, for one, wasn’t the home plate umpire in a game where Lo Duca caught Wagner. Also, in the one Mets game where West was the home plate umpire and where Lo Duca caught, the game ended on a home run, not a strikeout. West’s lawyers also insisted that “at no time did Billy Wagner lend Joe West any car of any kind” and that West never changed his strike zone in exchange for use of a car or any other favor. To that point, Wagner, in an affidavit, denied he and Lo Duca ever had such a conversation. Lo Duca declined to wage a defense.
Last year, Judge Kelley held that Lo Duca’s remarks constituted sufficient proof of defamation, which is a false statement, published without privilege, that damages a person’s reputation. A public figure who sues for defamation has the added hurdle of establishing actual malice. This means the defendant must either knowingly express a false and damaging statement or possess reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or falsity.
Here, Judge Kelley stressed, “false allegations that a person has committed a crime or that tend to injure another in his or her trade . . . constitute slander per se.” He added that, “Lo Duca’s story, if believed by those who heard it, would damage any reputation that the plaintiff had for integrity, and could also be construed as an allegation that the plaintiff committed the crime of commercial bribery.”
On Tuesday, Judge Kelley announced damages. The judge emphasized that an umpire’s “integrity and character” are integral to his or her professional reputation. The judge also labeled it a “legitimate concern” should Hall of Fame voters infer from Lo Duca’s “false assertion” that West, who intends to retire at the end of the 2021 season, should be kept out of the Hall “for the same reasons as otherwise excellent players ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, Pete Rose and Barry Bonds had or have not been elected.”
West and his attorneys (Nicholas Zaita and Kevin Murphy) convinced Judge Kelley of the economic ramifications of a false tale being spun at his expense. The 68-year-old, who is sometimes called “Cowboy Joe,” testified that Hall of Famers command between $15,000 and $20,000 per speaking appearance, whereas those without such a credential only earn in the range of $2,500 to $7,000 per appearance. West also explained that he plans to participate in baseball card shows that would provide him with much more income as a Hall of Famer—as much as $15,000 to $25,000 per appearance. Further, West detailed expenses in procuring “reputation management” services that attempt to remove and mitigate defamatory information from the Internet.
West’s original complaint had included The Action Network as a co-defendant but the two sides resolved the matter out-of-court.