In a world filled with #fakenews and social-media rumor mongering, it’s still a no-no to tell lies about someone in a manner that harms their reputation.
Rudolph’s agents and lawyer, Timothy Younger, has published a statement on Twitter that makes clear the possibility that Rudolph will be suing Garrett for defamation of character, based on the allegation that Rudolph used a racial slur before Garrett attacked Rudolph with his own helmet.
“Mr. Garrett maliciously uses this false allegation to coax sympathy, hoping to be excused for what clearly is inexcusable behavior,” Younger writes. “Despite other players and the referee being in the immediate vicinity, there are zero corroborating witnesses — as confirmed by the NFL. Although Mr. Rudolph had hoped to move forward, it is Mr. Garrett who has decided to utter this defamatory statement — in California. He is now exposed to legal liability.”
The reference to California isn’t gratuitous or accidental. The civil courts in California are regarded as being more favorable to the rights of those who make claims, both as to the juries who resolve the cases, the trial judges who hear them, and the appeals courts that craft the applicable legal principles.
Younger’s statement also mentions that Garrett’s attack on Rudolph constitutes battery. (Not assault.) A lawsuit could, in theory, include a battery claim, which would guarantee that the same jury that hears about the alleged racial slur will see the striking of Rudolph on the head with his own helmet, repeatedly. Which will tend to inflate the eventual verdict.
One thing for Younger to consider will be whether suing Garrett in civil court for battery (or assault) would give Garrett’s lawyers a basis for pulling the case into the broad reach of the NFL/NFLPA labor deal, which possibly prohibits players from suing each other for things that happen on the gridiron, forcing them instead to submit any grievances through a non-judicial process that would involve no judge, no jury, no California.
Garrett will have no such luck when it comes to a statement made in the offseason, far away from any football function or facility. He definitely is exposed to legal liability for what he said about Rudolph, unless Garrett can prove that what he said is true.
Of course, because Rudolph is a public figure, he’ll need to prove that Garrett acted with actual malice. And it will take more than Younger using the term “maliciously” in his statement. Under the law, “actual malice” arises in the defamation context when the person utter a false statement with actual knowledge that the statement is false or with reckless disregard to whether or not the statement is true or false.
The argument would (or at least could) be that Garrett made the public claim that Rudolph uttered a racial slur knowing that Rudolph previously had denied it and knowing that the NFL, which has microphones blanketing the field, had no evidence of it. Even if Garrett subjectively believes he heard it, at some point he needs to consider the broader evidence and ask himself whether he simply believes he heard something that wasn’t said.
Of course, it’s too late for that kind of backtracking now. Both sides are locked in to their stories, and this one ultimately could be decided, two or three years from now, by a group of people who will see the video of the battery (assault), hear the witnesses tell their stories about racial slurs that were or weren’t uttered, and decide whether Garrett violated Rudolph’s rights, as created and developed by the State of California.