Remember the Bernie Fine story? We wouldn’t blame you if you’d blocked it from your memory, but in case you haven’t, big new development: Fine’s wife, Laurie, is suing ESPN for libel. ESPN, of course, led the way in reporting on the allegations of molestation against Fine – including the release of this tape consisting of a conversation between Bernie Fine accuser Bobby Davis and Laurie Fine (Fine was fired the day the tape was released). You can see video of Laurie Fine’s lawyers talking about the suit here, while the suit itself is here.
Now, if you don’t remember the details of the Fine case, a refresher. Not terribly long after the Jerry Sandusky awfulness began dominating the news cycle, ESPN began reporting molestation allegations against another longtime assistant to a legendary college coach: Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine, who’d served under Jim Boeheim for over three decades. And though this was a different animal from the Sandusky case – ESPN first heard of the allegations years before and never ran with the story because of a lack of supporting evidence – when its show Outside the Lines released the tape, it seemed like game over.
That, though, wasn’t the end of the scandal. One of Fine’s accusers, Zach Tomaselli, went back and forth on his story with metronome-like frequency until the inescapable conclusion was that he was completely batshit crazy. And some in the media, even in the wake of the tape’s release, continued to cast doubt on the story. And now, if this suit isn’t settled out of court (and ESPN says it still stands by its reporting*, so don’t bet on that), it’ll be up to a jury to decide whether that doubt is justified.
So (again, if the case goes to court), does Laurie Fine stand any chance of winning? It won’t be easy.
This story about the declining number of libel suits in recent years mentions “a track record of limited success for plaintiffs.” Libel cases are tough to win for Laurie Fine’s side, period. It’ll be a bit easier, though, if Fine isn’t judged to be a public figure – and that might be why Bernie Fine, much more of a public figure than his wife, isn’t listed as a plaintiff. Why is it more difficult for a public plaintiff to win a libel suit? We’ll let an actual law firm explain:
The “public” plaintiff has additional hurdles to overcome to recover for libel or slander. An example of a public figure is a politician. Along with establishing all of the regular elements of the tort, a plaintiff who is a public figure must also show that the defendant knew the false statement was false, or at least acted with reckless disregard as to its truthfulness. Newspapers may escape liability for libel when they merely report false statements as long as the paper had no particular reason to doubt the statement at the time it was printed.
Still, Laurie Fine faces a tough road ahead even if she’s not found to be a public figure. We imagine there will need to be some serious issues with that recorded conversation for her to have a chance of winning. But this process won’t be fun for ESPN either. Even if the case never goes to court, and even if ESPN wins if the case does go to court, the company’s name will be dragged through the mud. Those who have been critical of the way ESPN handled the Fine story will only be more critical now. For a while, it looked like the Bernie Fine story had pretty much gone away. Today’s news signaled it’s done anything but – and it’s no longer Bernie Fine himself with the most to lose.
*Additionally, an ESPN statement said the suit is “without merit.”