In a lawsuit filed on Thursday in the Southern District of New York, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer accused G/O Media Inc., the owner of sports and culture website Deadspin, of defamation. The case follows other high-profile media lawsuits, from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Barstool founder David Portnoy, which allege bias and character assassination.
Deadspin has been down this road before as well: In 2016 retired wrestler Hulk Hogan won a lawsuit against the site’s parent company, Gawker Media, resulting in bankruptcy and the sale of Deadspin and other assets to the group that would become G/O Media.
These cases raise legal questions about accuracy in reporting, disclosures of personal information and refusals to correct stories as demanded.
Bauer challenges Deadspin’s depiction of his culpability in alleged domestic violence incidents occurring last spring, and of injuries sustained by his accuser. Bauer insists that Deadspin published a July 6, 2021, story headlined, “Trevor Bauer should never pitch again,” despite The Athletic and other media having already corrected their stories on the same topic.
Bauer also names the story’s author, Deadspin managing editor Chris Baud, as a defendant. Judge Alison Nathan, who is presiding over a lawsuit regarding the legality of the Giants and Jets marketing themselves as New York teams while playing home games in New Jersey, will preside over Bauer’s case. Bauer’s complaint was authored by Blair Brown and other attorneys at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.
Last June, a woman from San Diego accused Bauer of assault and received a temporary domestic violence restraining order against him. Her accusations included medical examinations of alleged injuries. Bauer denied the allegations.
In August, a judge vacated the restraining order on grounds of insufficient evidence. Bauer was not charged with a crime, though he could face a suspension from Major League Baseball, which is conducting its own investigation. Bauer was placed on paid leave at the time of the accusations, which ultimately extended through the end of the 2021 season.
Deadspin’s story, Bauer insists, made a series of untrue statements, including that the accuser had “her skull fractured” and that Bauer inflicted the injury. Bauer emphasizes that Deadspin published the story despite The Athletic correcting its story on Bauer three days earlier. The correction acknowledged that a CT scan hadn’t revealed a fracture. As Bauer sees it, G/O Media and Baud knew the claim was false and proceeded to publish the story, anyway.
Bauer stresses that documentation of the accuser’s injuries didn’t require reliance on other media reporting. Her court petition, including an attachment of her CT scan records, was publicly available. Deadspin, Bauer maintains, has it out for him. He says the publication and its staff have waged an “unrelenting campaign” to “defame and impugn” him. Deadspin, the complaint mentions, previously accused him of being an “online bully,” an “as—-“, and a “racist, sexist and jackass.”
Making matters worse, Bauer contends, is that Deadspin and Baud ignored multiple emails that the story was incorrect. On July 8, 2021, two days after the story was published, Bauer’s representatives followed with a demand letter—a warning that a lawsuit could follow if a demand is not met. As told in Bauer’s complaint, Deadspin’s general counsel responded and several edits were made, including a copy of the correction contained in the Athletic story. However, Bauer insists the edits were “wholly inadequate” since the modified story still used the term “fracture” or “skull fracture” (among other objections by Bauer).
Bauer maintains that multiple media companies exaggerated and embellished their coverage to fit a narrative. Deadspin, as Bauer sees it, was the most blameworthy in that it relied on stories that had already been corrected while ignoring publicly accessible evidence.
Bauer’s claim is for defamation per se, which refers to false statements so obviously damaging to the plaintiff’s reputation that they relieve the plaintiff of having to prove damages. Here, Deadspin is accused of portraying Bauer as having committed “a serious crime”—an accusation, the complaint says, that has “maligned him in his profession” and “caused him anguish, humiliation, and embarrassment.”
The court will almost certainly classify Bauer as a public figure. Public figures ordinarily must establish actual malice, meaning proof the claims were published with knowledge of being false or with reckless disregard as to whether they were true or false. Bauer’s complaint maintains that Deadspin exhibited knowledge or reckless disregard since the story drew from The Athletic story, which had already been corrected.
In the weeks ahead, Deadspin, through G/O Media, will answer the complaint. Expect it to contend that the story drew from multiple sources and that disagreement remains about the underlying allegations.
Deadspin will also portray its correction and edits as impactful and effective. Further, Deadspin will draw on the First Amendment, which affords journalists wide latitude in reporting, especially on public figures. In addition, Deadspin might question whether the story played such an instrumental role in shaping public perception. Many media companies—sports and otherwise—have reported on the domestic violence allegations and other aspects of Bauer’s life. To that point, Bauer’s complaint describes a widespread pattern of inaccurate and damaging accounts of his life.
Should the case advance past a motion to dismiss, both sides would use pretrial discovery to expose wrongdoing by the other. Bauer and Baud would both be required to give sworn testimony. Bauer would be asked about the allegations and other aspects of his life. Baud would need to explain the reporting and editing process used to vet the story.
Public figures have often struggled in pursuing defamation suits. Palin’s lawsuit against The New York Times, which centers on an erroneous graphic linking 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords to Palin’s political action committee, has thus far failed, most recently before a jury. Palin hasn’t surmounted the high hurdle of proving actual malice. Meanwhile, Portnoy’s lawsuit against Insider will need to establish that the publication, which accused him of sexual assault, knowingly or with reckless disregard published allegations that were untrue. Insider will soon answer Portnoy’s complaint. So long as media companies can persuasively argue they tried to report the truth, they are in an advantaged position when sued by public figures.
But there are risks for media companies. A jury awarded Hogan $140 million for invasion of privacy after Gawker published a sex tape. Some media companies opt to settle, such as The Washington Post, which reached a deal with Nicholas Sandman, the student who sued the paper for defamation over its reporting on a March for Life event in D.C. in 2019.