By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday revived a lawsuit against Fox News Network over its reporting on Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee employee whose unsolved murder sparked uncorroborated right-wing conspiracy theories.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, could sue Fox News for causing emotional distress by publishing a May 16, 2017, article claiming their son had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks, implying that the leaks were related to his death.
Fox News, a unit of Fox Corp, retracted the article a week later, saying it fell short of its standards, but some leading conservatives and on-air guests discussed it for months.
The leaked emails suggested that DNC officials favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating campaign.
Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi wrote that the Riches “sufficiently pleaded extreme and outrageous conduct” by the defendants, including reporter Malia Zimmerman, who wrote the retracted article, and Fox News guest Ed Butowsky.
The 3-0 decision overturned an August 2018 dismissal by U.S. District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan, and returned the case to him.
Seth Rich, 27, was shot and killed in July 2016 near his Washington home, in what police there consider a botched robbery.
Fox News said in a statement on Friday that it offered the Rich family its “deepest condolences for their loss,” but believed legal proceedings would show it did not engage in conduct that supported the Riches’ claims.
Asked about the decision, Butowsky, who is representing himself, said by phone: “That’s the craziest thing in the world. It has already been proven that the things they accused in the lawsuit never occurred.”
The Riches said in a statement that they looked forward to seeking justice, including at a possible trial.
“We would not wish what we have experienced upon any other parent,” they added.
The couple, from Omaha, Nebraska, had said the campaign against them included their hiring, at Butowsky’s suggestion, a private detective to investigate their son’s death.
Zimmerman later cited the detective’s findings in a discussion of Seth Rich’s alleged contacts with WikiLeaks.
Calabresi said the reporter then lent credibility to those findings by emphasizing the detective’s connection to the Riches.
“We have no trouble concluding that – taking their allegations as true – the Riches plausibly alleged what amounted to a campaign of emotional torture,” Calabresi wrote.
The Riches claimed to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder, and Mary Rich said she no longer feels comfortable in public.
Friday’s decision also lets the Riches sue for alleged interference with their contract with the detective, and try to revive a negligent supervision claim against Fox News.
The case is Rich et al v Fox News Network LLC et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-2321.