NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · ALABAMA · Libel · June 8, 2007
Supreme Court upholds new trial in libel suit
June 8, 2007 · The Supreme Court of Alabama last week unanimously upheld a lower court’s decision to grant a new trial in a former University of Alabama assistant football coach’s defamation lawsuit against a recruiting analyst.
Ronnie Cottrell and another former Alabama assistant coach, Ivy Williams, sued Tom Culpepper, a recruiting analyst, and the NCAA for statements made around the time of an investigation into recruiting violations at the school in 2000. The order of the new trial erased a $30 million verdict for Cottrell.
Neither the NCAA nor Williams will be party to the retrial. The Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision to dispose of both coaches’ claims against the NCAA and Williams’ claim against Culpepper.
The statements at issue include Culpepper telling members of the media that Cottrell had abandoned his family, that Cottrell and an assistant stole videotapes from the school’s athletic department, and that Cottrell had stolen money from the Shaun Alexander Foundation. Alexander is a former Alabama player who is now in the NFL. Culpepper also said Williams was a “recruiting cheater” and that he funneled money from a booster to a recruit.
The NCAA posted a report on its Web site about its investigation, in which it indicated the coaches were penalized by the organization, even though neither coach was disciplined.
Much of the court’s 118-page decision centered on whether the coaches were public or private figures. The distinction is important because private figures must show the defendant was negligent in publishing the defamatory material, while public figures must show a higher standard, actual malice — knowledge of the falsity of the statement or reckless disregard of the truth.
The court found that Williams was a limited-purpose public figure and Cottrell was a limited-purpose public figure for the NCAA’s statement but a private figure for those statements made by Culpepper.
The court used a three-pronged test in analyzing whether someone is a limited-purpose public figure, saying the court must “(1) isolate the public controversy, (2) examine the plaintiff’s involvement in the controversy, and (3) determine whether the alleged defamation [was] germane to the plaintiff’s participation in the controversy.”
The court found a public controversy existed surrounding the NCAA’s investigation of the school and that the coaches were prominently involved in it.
The court also said that the coaches had voluntarily injected themselves into the controversy, in part because “by accepting their coaching positions, Cottrell and Williams ‘show[ed] a voluntary decision to place [themselves] in a situation where there was a likelihood of public controversy.'” Although the coaches were prevented by the NCAA from discussing the investigation, the court said this “does not necessitate a finding that an individual is not a limited-purpose public figure.”
The court determined the statements on the NCAA Web site to be relevant to the controversy and therefore said the coaches would be considered public figures for those statements. However, the court said the coaches could not prove actual malice because the Web statements were the result of a clerical error.
The court also found in favor of Culpepper regarding the claims resulting from his statements that Cottrell abandoned his family and that Williams was a “recruiting cheater” and funneled money from a booster to a recruiter, saying the statements involved did not accuse the coaches of crimes of “infamy or moral turpitude” and they did not show special damages resulted from the allegedly defamatory statements.
On retrial, the court will consider only the nature of Culpepper’s statements that Cottrell stole foundation money and videotapes.
(Cottrell v. NCAA) — SH