DETROIT — A Michigan court has reinstated a lawsuit by a former college gymnastics coach who claims he was defamed on Twitter by an ESPN reporter linking him to disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar and a controversial coach.
The 3-0 decision by the state appeals court means the case will go to a jury trial in Isabella County unless both sides settle it.
The court on Thursday found a lack of “minimal due diligence” by investigative reporter Dan Murphy when he referred on Twitter in 2019 to Jerry Reighard, who coached women’s gymnastics at Central Michigan University.
ESPN said Friday it was evaluating its options. Murphy didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Murphy had tweeted that the Michigan attorney general was investigating elite gymnastics coach John Geddert. He said Geddert was a “close friend” to Nassar and had been accused of physically harming gymnasts.
Murphy quickly followed up with another tweet about Reighard:
“On the same day as the AG’s announcement, Central Michigan said it was putting longtime gymnastics coach Jerry Reighard on leave amid an internal review. No details of the review were shared, but Reighard has a long personal and professional relationship with Geddert.”
CMU had stated that the Reighard matter had nothing to do with sexual misconduct or Nassar, who was convicted of sexual assault. But Murphy declined to retract the tweets, according to a summary of the dispute.
He also admitted that he did not attempt to contact Reighard or CMU before posting the tweets.
A few weeks later, Murphy tweeted an update about CMU’s review of Reighard and said it was “not connected” to the Nassar scandal or sexual misconduct.
Judge Eric Janes ruled in favor of ESPN and Murphy and dismissed the case, saying the initial tweets were substantially true. But the appeals court, in a 3-0 decision, said a jury should sort out what happened.
“The implication that Reighard’s placement on leave was related to allegations that Geddert had physically and mentally harmed gymnasts tended to harm Reighard’s reputation so as to lower him in the estimation of the community or deter third persons from associating or dealing with him,” the court said.
News media lawyer Herschel Fink said he doubts the decision will be broadly applied to other cases.
“Any time you’re dealing with libel by implication, it’s going to be a case that’s very fact-specific. … But they did find here that the reporter had, in their words, purposefully avoided the truth by not making some obvious inquiries,” Fink said.
Reighard was fired by CMU, which had accused him of disregarding medical staff in injuries. His lawsuit over the dismissal still is active in Isabella County.
Nassar worked at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians. He is serving decades in prison for sexual assault and child pornography crimes. Geddert, a former U.S. Olympic coach, killed himself just hours after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced charges against him in 2021.