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John Oliver, a giant squirrel and a defamation lawsuit by a coal industry titan

John Oliver railed against Murray Energy Corporation in a June 2017 segment of his HBO show "Last Week Tonight." Here's why the company's CEO sued Oliver. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver knew he was inviting a legal battle when he used his show Sunday to lambaste one of the country’s largest coal mining companies and mock its chief executive.

But it had to be done, he said.

In a 24-minute segment on the decline of the coal industry and President Trump’s tenuous promises to bring it back, Oliver railed against the mining giant Murray Energy Corporation and chief executive Robert E. Murray, who has blamed the industry’s troubles on an “evil agenda” by President Barack Obama.

Before he got going, Oliver offered up a proviso. “I’m going to need to be careful here,” he said, “because when we contacted Murray Energy for this piece, they sent us a letter instructing us to ‘cease and desist from any effort to defame, harass, or otherwise injure Mr. Murray or Murray Energy,’ and telling us that ‘failure to do so will result in immediate litigation.’”

Then he tore into the 77-year-old coal magnate.

Murray was a “geriatric Dr. Evil,” he said, who mistreated his employees and tried to weaken coal safety regulations through litigation. He suggested Murray was “on the same side as black lung” and criticized his response to a deadly 2007 mine accident in Utah found to have been caused by safety violations.

He called up a satirical article in the United Mine Workers of America’s journal that described a squirrel hopping onto Murray’s porch and telling him, “You should be operating your very own mines” (the company said this was not, in fact, a true story).

Finally, in a stunt fit only for late night television, Oliver brought out a man in a giant squirrel costume and paraded him around the stage.

“Bob Murray, I didn’t really plan for so much of this piece to be about you, but you kinda forced my hand on that one,” Oliver said. “And I know you’re probably going to sue me over this. But, you know what? I stand by everything I said.”

On Wednesday, Murray did sue Oliver for defamation, along with HBO and Time Warner.

The lawsuit, filed in West Virginia circuit court, accuses Oliver of carrying out a “meticulously planned attempt to assassinate the character and reputation” of Murray and broadcasting false statements about his company to HBO’s 134 million paying subscribers.

The goal is to allow Murray, who is said to be gravely ill, to “set the record straight,” the complaint says.

“Nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack,” it says, adding that Oliver’s segment was an attempt to advance “biases against the coal industry” and “disdain for the coal-related policies of the Trump Administration.”

When Oliver’s writers contacted Murray Energy for comment before airing the segment, the company’s representatives warned them that they were using outdated information and discredited reports to support the show’s arguments, according to the complaint. Nevertheless, it says, Oliver ignored other materials Murray Energy provided that might have set him straight.

The lawsuit claims that Oliver deliberately omitted facts offered by Murray Energy that, in the company’s view, contradicted Oliver’s account of the mining accident in Utah. Murray and his company have argued that an earthquake, not dangerous mining, triggered the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine, which killed nine miners.

Murray’s complaint also addresses the squirrel episode:

In reference to Mr. Murray’s denial of an absurd story that Mr. Murray claimed a squirrel told him he should operate his own mines, Defendant Oliver stated, “You know what, I actually believe Murray on that one” and “Even by your standard that would be a pretty ridiculous thing to say.” This implied that Mr. Murray lied about other, more important matters, such as the cause of the mine collapse, and that he treated the affected families with “honesty, sincerity and compassion.”

The complaint alleges one count each of defamation, false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It seeks financial damages and an injunction barring the rebroadcast of Oliver’s segment.

In an emailed statement, Murray Energy said the company sent letters earlier this month to Oliver, Time Warner and HBO, then held a conference call with their counsel on Saturday to “correct what we knew of their proposed false and destructive broadcast.” The defendants “ignored our communications and, instead, continued to baselessly and maliciously attack the character of Mr. Murray and Murray Energy, with no factual basis whatsoever,” the statement read.

HBO said in a statement that it had not yet seen the complaint.

“We have confidence in the staff of Last Week Tonight and do not believe anything in the show this week violated Mr. Murray’s or Murray Energy’s rights,” HBO said.

Murray is known for aggressively suing journalists and media organizations that run critical content about him and his companies. Between 2001 and 2015, he filed at least nine lawsuits against journalists and news outlets that published a negative advertisement from an activist group, claiming they maligned his character and threatened his employees’ jobs, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Most if not all never went to trial.

In 2013, he sued the Huffington Post and a blogger for defamation over a story that called him an “extremist coal baron” and criticized his donations to a gubernatorial candidate. The case was dismissed the following year.

In May, Murray Energy sued the New York Times for libel after the newspaper published an editorial accusing the CEO of lying about the Crandall Canyon Mine and calling the company a “serial violator” of federal health and safety rules. Murray is also suing a corporate intelligence firm for disseminating articles that used anonymous sources to report on the company’s discussions with debt holders. The firm, Reorg Research Inc., is fighting a court order to reveal the sources.

"Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver's "Catheter Cowboy" returns from time to time for not-so-subtle messaging directed at President Trump. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)