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Federal judge sides with Murray in early action on 2 media defamation cases

Murray Energy Corp.'s defamation allegations from comments made on an episode of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" will be heard in a West Virginia state court, while a case brought against The New York Times will not be dismissed.

Murray Energy sued Oliver as well as Time Warner Inc. and Home Box Office Inc. over comments criticizing the coal industry and coal executives. The program specifically targeted Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray and made comments about Murray's lawsuit related to a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration respirable dust rule, the handling of lawsuits brought by employees, findings from federal investigations into the Crandall Canyon mine disaster and other past news in a way the company said was defamatory.

Murray's legal team filed the Oliver case in the Circuit Court of Marshall County, W.Va., on June 22. The defendants on June 30 removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, citing diversity jurisdiction. On Aug. 10, Judge John Bailey remanded the case back to the state court.

In the order, Bailey noted that Murray's close association with his business means defamation about the executive could be construed as defamation of the company. Because both Murray and HBO are Delaware corporations, there was no diversity between the parties, he said. Citing a "scarcity of case law regarding defamation of an executive also defaming" the business, the judge denied Murray's request to be reimbursed for the jurisdictional dispute.

Bailey also filed an Aug. 10 order refusing to dismiss defamation claims made by Murray against The New York Times based on "false and defamatory statements" in an editorial. In his order, Bailey wrote that Murray had sufficiently pleaded actual malice and falsity of statements regarding a mine disaster and Murray Energy's safety record. He also said the merits of the claims should be evaluated beyond a motion to dismiss.