Court Rules Former MLB Player’s Reputation Renders Him Libel-Proof

A New York trial court recently ruled that former Major League Baseball player and all-start Lenny Dykstra’s reputation was so poor that he could not be defamed.

The matter was Lenny Dykstra v. St. Martin Press, LLC, et al., in which Mr. Dykstra sued his former New York Mets teammate Ron Darling for defamation based on comments Darling made about Dykstra being a racist in a 2019 autobiography.  Dykstra also alleged that he suffered emotional distress and loss of standing in the sports and entertainment industries, and suffered irreparable harm to his professional reputation.  A publisher and ghostwriter were also named as defendants.

In Darling’s book, Darling refers to Dykstra as a criminal.  He also discusses a purported interaction between Dykstra and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd during the 1986 World Series in which Dykstra allegedly made racial comments to Boyd.

The defendants moved to dismiss and asserted that Dykstra was a “classic libel-proof plaintiff, whose reputation is so bad that he simply cannot be defamed.”  The defendants also represented that “the [r]eference is substantially true, and any alleged incremental harm would be nominal and non-actionable.”

Darling relied on evidence to substantiate that Dykstra’s reputation “was that of a ‘convicted felon, a liar, a fraud  . . . a drug abuser[,] . . . cheat and extortionist who has publicly bragged, in his 2016 autobiography and in interviews, that he used steroids and blackmail to enhance his baseball performance.’”  Darling also pointed to Dkytra’s own autobiography as proof that the latter had been referred to previously in a negative fashion, publicly.

In June 2020, the court rule in favor of the defendants.  In doing so, the court considered the idea that a plaintiff whose reputation with respect to a specific subject is so badly tarnished cannot be further injured by allegedly false statements on that subject.

“The rationale behind the doctrine is that free speech interests should prevail over the interests of an individual who, due to an already soiled reputation, would not be entitled to recover anything other than nominal damages,” the court stated.

The court also opined that, prior to the publication of Darling’s book, Dykstra was allegedly infamous for possession a number of unsavory traits, and that his reputation was based, in part, upon his own autobiography.

Interestingly, the court also considered that others had publicly commented on Dykstra’s alleged behavior, including in another book of Darling’s, but that Dykstra did not sue them for defamation.  Ultimately, the court found, as a matter of law, that “evil opinion” of Dykstra was not induced. T

Here, the court make it clear that it was not offering any comment on the truth or falsity of Darling’s account of Dykstra.  Instead, the court concluded only that Dykstra’s reputation for unsportsmanlike conduct and bigotry was already so tarnished that it could not be further damaged by the latest reference to his alleged racist behavior.

Richard B. Newman is an Internet law attorney at Hinch Newman LLP.

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