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Dykstra v. St. Martin’s Press LLC

Trial court dismisses former New York Mets center fielder Lenny Dykstra’s defamation lawsuit against former teammate and book author Ron Darling, Darling’s ghostwriter and his book publishers, holding Dykstra was “libel-proof” with respect to statements in Darling’s book labeling him racist and failed to plead actual malice.

 Former Major League Baseball player Lenny Dykstra sued his former New York Mets teammate Ron Darling, publishers St. Martin’s Press and MacMillan Publishing Group, and ghostwriter Daniel Paisner for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising out of Darling’s 2019 book titled 108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game. Darling and the publisher defendants separately moved to dismiss Dykstra’s complaint. The trial court granted both motions, holding that Dykstra was a “libel-proof plaintiff” with regard to charges in Darling’s book labeling him a racist and that he failed to sufficiently allege actual malice by the publishers.

In his book, Darling recounted an interaction between his then-teammate Dykstra and Boston Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd during Game 3 of the 1986 World Series. According to Darling, while Boyd was warming up prior to the game, Dykstra stood in the on-deck circle and taunted him with a tirade of expletive-laden insults and racial epithets, which Darling described as “foul, racist, hateful, hurtful stuff,” “unprintable,” and worse “than anything Jackie Robinson might have heard.” Darling suggested that Dykstra’s vitriol may have psychologically affected Boyd, leading to a Dykstra leadoff home run and eventual Mets victory. Darling also referred to Dykstra as “one of baseball’s all-time thugs,” “a criminal” and “generally a shitty human being.”

Dykstra claimed that Darling’s references to his alleged racist taunts tarnished his World Series performance and the Mets’ 1986 championship, and subjected him to emotional distress and loss of standing in the sports and entertainment industries, and caused irreparable harm to his professional reputation. Darling moved to dismiss on the ground that Dykstra is a libel-proof plaintiff whose reputation for bigotry is so bad that he could not be defamed by the statements in the book as a matter of law. The publisher defendants also sought dismissal based on the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine, as well as on the basis that Dykstra failed to sufficiently plead actual malice.

The court first analyzed the publishers’ argument that Dykstra failed to sufficiently plead actual malice. Conceding public figure status, Dykstra argued that the publishers knew there was no video evidence to corroborate Darling’s account yet failed to independently investigate and verify the book’s assertions concerning his allegedly racist comments. The court noted the general rule that failure to investigate before publishing, even when a reasonably prudent person would have done so, is insufficient to establish actual malice. Without subjective awareness of probable falsity or any denials prior to publication, the court held, failure of the publishers to investigate could not constitute willful avoidance of the truth. The court was also swayed by the fact that the same defendants had published another Darling book in 2017, which referred to the same incident and Dykstra’s “hateful, hurtful” insults, and to which Dykstra never responded. The court concluded that Dykstra failed to sufficiently allege actual malice and dismissed the case against the publishers on that basis.

The court further held that even if Dykstra had sufficiently pled actual malice, he was still barred from recovery under the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine. Recognizing that the doctrine is applied only in rare circumstances, the court concluded that Darling’s book could not expose Dykstra to any further reputational harm because, prior to the book’s publication, Dykstra had already become “infamous for being, among other things, racist, misogynist, and anti-gay, as well as a sexual predator, a drug-abuser, a thief, and an embezzler.” The court noted that Dykstra bragged in his own autobiography about pushing the boundaries of sportsmanship to gain physical and psychological advantages, for example, by using steroids and blackmailing umpires. The court also took notice of publications by two of Dykstra’s former employees, a 2009 magazine article and a 2013 book, both of which referred to Dykstra’s reputation for making racially offensive comments. Dykstra never challenged those assertions nor claimed that they or the media reports about them had defamed him. Dykstra’s general disreputability also included his being the subject of at least 24 legal actions for nonpayment and breach of contract, and criminal offenses such as fraud, embezzlement, grand theft, lewd conduct and assault with a deadly weapon. 

The court reasoned that Dykstra would be better served using available opportunities to tell his own story and disputing Darling’s assertions in the “court of public opinion” rather than “an actual, taxpayer-funded court of law.” The court was careful to clarify that it was in no way commenting on the truth or falsity of Darling’s account of Dykstra. Rather, it concluded only that Dykstra’s reputation for unsportsmanlike conduct and bigotry was already so tarnished that it could not be further injured by the latest reference to his racist behavior. The court declared Dykstra a libel-proof plaintiff and dismissed his defamation claim on that ground as well.     

Finally, the court dismissed Dykstra’s second cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress against all defendants, holding that it was duplicative of the defamation cause of action and that Darling and the publishers’ alleged conduct was “not outrageous by any stretch of the imagination.”

Summary by Frank D’Angelo and Jordan Meddy

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