The parents of Seth Rich, the young Democratic aide whose unsolved murder became grist for right-wing conspiracy theories about the 2016 presidential race, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Fox News, claiming that the network's coverage helped fuel damaging rumors about their son. After reportedly finding that WikiLeaks had been in contact with Rich before his death, the reporters falsely suggested that Rich had been responsible for the massive DNC email leak.
Yet a week later, Fox retracted the story after the Rich family filed a complaint and the sources for Zimmerman's report refuted what she had written.
"And they published, republished, and publicized the sham story-which they knew would be covered again and again, and republished, here and around the world-painting Joel and Mary's son as a criminal and a traitor to the United States", the lawsuit states. "The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son's life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension" Joel and Mary Rich said in a joint statement.
Butowsky, for his part, claims that he didn't write the piece, and that including him in the lawsuit is "baseless and frivolous". Unbeknownst to them, however, Wheeler was working with Butowsky and Zimmerman on the article at the same time, and Butowsky and Wheeler even briefed White House communications director Sean Spicer on the story's progress. The story went viral and sparked theories that the alleged leak and his death were connected.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of NY by Joel and Mary Rich, whose son, Seth, was murdered in July 2016, accuses Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman and frequent guest and political operative Ed Butowsky of "intentionally exploit [ing] this tragedy-including through lies, misrepresentations and half-truths-with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause Joel and Mary".
The lawsuit claims that Joel and Mary are experiencing symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and Mary is experiencing symptoms consistent with Social Anxiety Disorder. Nevertheless, the network is well-positioned to fend off a lawsuit brought by Rich's family that alleges "intentional infliction of emotional distress", according to legal experts.
When reached for comment on Tuesday, Butowsky claimed the lawsuit was "one of the dumbest" he'd ever seen, according to ABC News. Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and former Fox News contributor, has claimed he was defamed by allegedly made-up quotes attributed to him in the story. "Mr. and Mrs. Rich should come forward and be honest with people", he said.