The Case of the Daredevil
Evel Knievel was a motorcycle stuntman who had built an international reputation through decades of daredevil feats. He rode through fire walls, flew over rattlesnakes, set world records for blasting over 14 parked buses, and spent 30 days in a coma when his 151-foot jump over the fountains of Caesar’s Palace hotel came up a few feet short. The Smithsonian Institute honored his deeds, and he built a solid reputation as a community activist and advocate for young people, using his fame to promote anti-drug programs and motorcycle safety.
ESPN held an awards program honoring winners in extreme sports (skateboarding, surfing, and motorcycle racing), and photographed many attending celebrities. On its Web site, ESPN.com, the network featured photos from the event, including one that depicted Knievel with his right arm around his wife, Krystal, and his left arm around a young woman. The caption read, “Evel Knievel proves that you’re never too old to be a pimp.”
The Knievels sued for defamation, claiming that the word “pimp” subjected them to hatred, contempt, and ridicule, and caused several of Evel’s former clients to stop working with him.
The issue according to the Plaintiff is whether reasonable viewers (and reasonable jurors) might consider the material defamatory. A pimp is a criminal, and a particularly disgusting one at that. The plaintiff could easily prove that Evel Knievel has never had anything to do with such revolting conduct.
The argument for ESPN was basically: Lighten up. This is a web site for young, hip people who watch extreme sports, use contemporary language, and possess what is known as a sense of humor. The term pimp was not intended as a criminal accusation, nor would any reasonable viewer take it literally. It was intended as a joke.
Questions for Discussion
- If this is an intentional tort, what elements must be proved by Plaintiff?
- Does the Defendant have any defenses?
- If the Plaintiff wins, what might their damages consist of and what would be the basis for the calculations of those damages?
- Is anyone in addition to ESPN a potential defendant?