Buster Murdaugh sues Netflix, Warner Bros. and the Gannett newspaper for defamation

The son of disgraced lawyer Alex Murdaugh is suing Netflix and Warner Bros., as well as a major newspaper chain, claiming he was wrongly implicated in a 2015 murder.

Buster Murdaugh’s lawsuit filed Friday is the latest episode in the sprawling saga of a South Carolina legal dynasty’s fall from grace. Alex Murdaugh will spend the rest of his life in prison for killing his wife, Maggie, and his youngest son, Paul. Three generations have served as elected prosecutors in the South Carolina Lowcountry; the jurisdiction was called “Murdaugh Country”.

Today, his only surviving heir, who has not been charged with the crime, is fighting to clear his own name.

But South Carolina defamation lawyers say it will be an uphill battle for Buster Murdaugh and his lawyer Shaun Kent.

“Kent is likely to encounter strong resistance,” Robert B. Ransom of the firm Leventis & Ransom of Columbia, South Carolina, told the Washington Post.

Kent’s staff said he was on trial Monday and did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. None of the people being sued immediately responded to The Post’s requests for comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit claims three documents falsely link Buster to the death of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old nursing student found dead along a desolate stretch of road in the Lowcountry.

The incident was then reported as a hit-and-run. But in March 2023, after the media spectacle surrounding the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division declared Smith’s death a homicide. Smith’s body was exhumed in April 2023. The national attention sparked many rumors about the family, Smith’s death being just one of them.

The trio of documentaries are “Murdaugh Murders: Deadly Dynasty,” which airs on Discovery Plus and Investigation Discovery; “Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty,” streaming on HBO’s Max platform; and Netflix’s “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.”

They all came up with the same idea: Buster Murdaugh was a member of a powerful family who didn’t appreciate their son having a romantic relationship with another man, so they killed Smith. Some documents claim Buster killed Smith with a baseball bat, which Buster denied.

The Netflix series shows a portrait of a young man with red hair (Buster is a redhead) carrying a baseball bat, which the lawsuit claims was intended to portray Buster as the killer.

The Netflix series also features Michael DeWitt, editor of the Hampton County Guardian newspaper, speaking about the case. In the documentary, the lawsuit claims, he said, “We were hearing all these rumors about a possible connection” and “there’s some truth to that.” (DeWitt’s newspaper is published by Gannett, the major media company that owns USA Today and hundreds of local news brands.)

After hearing an outline of the trial, Ransom said of the defendants, “My feeling is that there’s just enough truth in all of these media portrayals that they’re going to get away with it.” »

South Carolina defamation lawyers agree the case will likely be won or lost on whether Buster was a “public figure.”

The usual definition is someone who has put themselves forward in society and thus exposed themselves to criticism. Buster sat in for the three-part Fox News series “The Fall of the Murdaugh House” that aired after the trial but otherwise rarely attracted attention.

What if he turns out to be a public figure? “The burden he faces to prove defamation is extremely high,” Ransom said.

“That appeal could happen before trial, but I think it’s not an appeal that would come early in the case,” Stephen F. DeAntonio of the Charleston-based DeAntonio Law Firm told the Post.

DeAntonio said Buster had all the characteristics of someone who was unwittingly forced into the public eye.

“There were so many events, issues and controversies that happened while all of this was going on. You couldn’t keep up. He got sucked into it,” DeAntonio said.

He continued: “And it’s also sad. It had a tragic ending for many people. It’s not lost on me, but if the plaintiff in this case turns out to be a public figure or an involuntary public figure or a limited public figure in this case, that changes the game.

Those sued have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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