Mine owner Murray threatens to sue over statements
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
September 22, 2007
Crandall Canyon mine co-owner Robert Murray is threatening to sue a professor and an editor over what he claims were defamatory statements regarding his behavior in the wake of the mine collapse.
Murray took offense at an opinion piece written by Penn State University engineering professor R. Larry Grayson that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. It criticized Murray's “bombastic” performance in the news briefings immediately following the Aug. 6 disaster at the Crandall Canyon mine that killed six miners.
The other piece at issue was written by Steve Fiscor, editor-in-chief of the trade publication Coal Age. The editorial said the coal industry “takes the ostrich approach when Bob Murray takes the microphone, hoping that he will go away soon and that no one will notice.”
Letters to the two authors this week described the opinion pieces as “virulent and untruthful” attacks.
“We demand that you immediately retract the editorial and publish an apology acceptable to Mr. Murray,” Michael O. McKown, general counsel for Murray Energy Corp., wrote. “Failure to do so in a timely fashion will lead to immediate legal action.”
The Tribune has not been contacted regarding the Grayson piece.
In his press briefings after the mine collapse, Murray derided global warming as a sham, criticized politicians, condemned a reporter, and claimed an earthquake caused the event - a claim later rebutted by seismologists.
He also claimed there was no retreat mining - where coal pillars supporting the roof are mined, leaving the roof to fall in - being done at Crandall Canyon, although mine maps show and federal officials have said there was.
Jane Connor, founder of Utah News Clips, said as soon as the press conference was over, her company was bombarded with calls from companies that wanted to order a copy of the briefing to show the wrong way to deal with the media.
"We started calling it, 'How Not To Do A Press Conference 101,' ” she said. "In terms of media training he had none. . . . We've been doing this for 21 years and we've never had a response like this before."
Grayson said that, as far as his criticism, "the facts speak for themselves."
"There is ample evidence that there is absolutely no merit in the case," he said.
But, in one instance, Murray's threat of litigation seems to have worked.
Peter Johnson, publisher and owner of Coal Age, said Friday that the claim of defamation is “a little bit of a stretch,” but the company's attorneys suggested the publication extend an apology in an upcoming editorial.
“We offered in that editorial to say, 'If anybody inferred that we were attacking Mr. Murray or attacking the company, we apologize for that,' ” Johnson said.
“We stand by everything that was written, but the attorney said that legally there's a gray area. We're attempting to nip it in the bud. But we're not publishing a retraction,” Johnson said. “We'll meet them halfway.”
Pat Shea, a Salt Lake attorney who has spent 25 years practicing media law, said the pieces Murray is targeting enjoy multiple layers of protection, since they are opinion pieces and, to prevail in the case, Murray would have to show what they were saying “is viciously untrue.”
“Indeed they reflect the robust nature of the First Amendment where everybody is entitled to their opinion and to express it, whether it's by print or by speech,” said Shea, who complained of wealthy interests using the legal system to intimidate critics.
Murray has shown a willingness to go to court over perceived smears on his character.
In 2001, Murray filed at $1 billion lawsuit against The Akron Beacon Journal, claiming he was defamed in a profile that suggested he had a habit of stretching the truth and quoting him as saying he was ill and had purchased his cemetery plot.
The state court in Ohio initially dismissed the case, but an appeals court reinstated it and the parties eventually settled the suit. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
Also in 2001, Murray twice sued United Mine Workers of America official Carlo Tarley, for statements he allegedly made, including that Murray “doesn't like old people” and “has trouble telling the truth.”
Both suits were dismissed after judges determined the speech enjoyed special protection because it was part of a labor dispute.
“Both decisions show that Murray has a quick trigger when he doesn't like what's being said, and that he doesn't understand what speech is protected,” said UMWA attorney Judy Rivlin.