AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Former Dallas Cowboys linebacker and Super Bowl winner Robert Jones’ defamation lawsuit against TMZ can move forward because he made a timely request for a correction under state law, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court ruled 5-3 that Jones’ lawsuit against Warner Bros. Entertainment, TMZ and former TMZ reporter Elizabeth McKernan can continue. Jones sued in Travis County District Court in 2015, one year after TMZ posted a story online alleging he was a suspect in a murder-for-hire plot.
“We hold that Jones satisfied … the Defamation Mitigation Act because he made a timely and sufficient request and because TMZ actually made a change to the story,” the 24-page opinion states.
TMZ’s story remains posted on its website. It states Jones “has been named the primary suspect in a police investigation in Cleveland after allegedly trying to hire a hit man to take out his agent” and cites a police report. The top of the story includes an update with an “absolute” denial by Jones of the allegations.
The lawsuit claims Jones’ cousin Theodore Watson began harassing Jones’ family for money after his release from an Ohio prison, resulting in Jones’ attorney sending a cease-and-desist letter and the “utterly false” allegations being made.
“Angry and still desperate for money, Watson contacted the media rag TMZ, and offered them a bizarre, fabricated, false tale for money,” the complaint stated. “As patently fabricated as the story was, TMZ encouraged Watson to file a complaint against Jones with the Cleveland Police Department and fax TMZ a copy. It is believed TMZ even offered Watson money to do so. Watson dutifully complied.”
Jones, 50, claims he was “devastated” when the story was published, that he and his family were shunned, scorned and ridiculed.
The trial court later denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss. In 2017, the Third Court of Appeals in Austin affirmed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss Jones’ defamation and conspiracy claims, but did dismiss Jones’ intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution and abuse of process claims.
Writing for the high court’s majority Friday, Justice Eva Guzman disagreed with the defense claim that Jones failed to make a “timely and sufficient request” for correction under Texas’ Defamation Mitigation Act. She concluded that Jones’ lawyer’s communications with TMZ about the allegations “constitute a request.”
“TMZ actually understood Jones to have made a request; and if Jones’ timely communications with TMZ were not ‘sufficient’ under the act, TMZ’s failure to timely challenge sufficiency as required by [the law] waived any insufficiency complaints,” the opinion states. “What is more, and in the alternative, TMZ actually ‘made a clarification’ within the meaning of [the law] by (1) providing Jones’ side of the story (at least in part) and (2) adding clarifying facts about the central figures in the story.”
Guzman further concluded the written communications between Jones’ attorney and TMZ satisfy the timeliness requirements of the law.
“Indeed, Jones’ agent contacted TMZ the very day the purportedly defamatory story was published – both by telephone and in writing – concerning the defamatory publication,” the opinion states. “Those communications did not include the words ‘I request a correction, clarification, or retraction,’ but the statute does not require such formality.”
Jones played for ten seasons in the National Football League with the Cowboys, St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. He helped the Cowboys win Super Bowls during the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons.
Jones’ attorney and Warner Bros. Entertainment did not immediately respond to email messages requesting comment Friday evening.