Seth Rich family files lawsuit against Fox News, blames Hannity for promoting conspiracy theory

The suit claims the network circulated "false and fabricated facts" about the circumstances surrounding Rich's murder.

The family of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich has filed a lawsuit against Fox News, an investigative reporter, and a network guest for propagating a conspiracy theory about their son's death (CREDIT: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The family of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich has filed a lawsuit against Fox News, an investigative reporter, and a network guest for propagating a conspiracy theory about their son's death (CREDIT: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The family of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich has filed a lawsuit against Fox News for pushing a conspiracy theory about the circumstances surrounding their son’s death, ABC News reported on Tuesday night.

“No parent should ever have to live through what we have been forced to endure,” Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, said in a joint statement this week. “The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son’s life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension.”

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The suit claims that Fox News investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman and contributor Ed Butowsky “reached out to the family [in December 2016] under false pretenses” in order to obtain comments for an article on a fringe theory that claimed Rich had contacted WikiLeaks before his death to hand over stolen DNC emails. The unfounded conspiracy claims that 27-year-old Rich — who was found with multiple gunshot wounds, one block from his D.C. apartment, on July 10, 2016 — had been killed in retaliation for leaking the messages, which were later published online.

U.S. intelligence officials have since debunked that theory, stating that the emails were in fact stolen by Russian state-sponsored hackers in an attempt to “interfere with the U.S. election process.” A D.C. police investigation into Rich’s death is ongoing, although authorities have previously suggested his murder may have been the result of a robbery gone wrong.

Zimmerman and Butowsky published a story on May 16, 2017 claiming they spoke with multiple sources who had confirmed the conspiracy theory. Both Zimmerman and Butowsky’s “sources,” as well as the FBI and local police, immediately disputed the account — and Rich’s family issued a statement requesting that Fox News retract the story because it was based on “untruthful rumors.” The network did eventually retract the story on May 23, stating the story had not met its editorial standards.

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The lawsuit argues that Zimmerman and Butowsky “aided and abetted the intentional infliction of emotional distress” on Rich’s family through their reporting and promotion of the alternate “sham story.”

“Joel and Mary Rich have brought this case to hold Fox News, Fox reporter Zimmerman, and political operative and Fox News contributor Butowsky, accountable for their reprehensible actions,” Leonard A. Gail, a lawyer representing the family, said in a statement. “…[W]e hope to help prevent this kind of malicious and reckless behavior in the future so that others can be spared the hell the Riches have had to endure.”

Although he isn’t named as a defendant, Fox News host Sean Hannity is cited multiple times in the Rich family’s suit.

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“Fox’s Sean Hannity tweeted repeatedly about the Zimmerman/Fox Article, including with a link to the May 15 local Fox affiliate article falsely stating that there was evidence that Seth had provided the DNC emails to WikiLeaks,” the suit states.

According to the suit, Hannity also frequently repeated the details of the conspiracy theory on his Fox News show and radio show between May 16 and 23 of last year — and the suit claims that Fox continued to allow Hannity to promote the unfounded theory to raise these viewership numbers.

“Variety published an article on May 24, 2017, which stated that Sean Hannity saw a massive spike in his ratings for May 23, 2017, attributable to his teasing a major announcement regarding Seth,” it reads. “Variety further reported that Nielsen data showed that Hannity averaged 2.45 million total viewers with 565,000 in the key adults 25-54 demographic at 10 p.m. which, compared to the comparable night from 2016, was an increase of 50% in total viewers.”

Hannity has previously blamed efforts to discredit him over his promotion of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory on “liberal fascism.” He tweeted last May that the media was “trying to silence [him], get [him] fired” and “pressure [his] advertising on radio & TV.”

When reached for comment on Tuesday, Butowsky claimed the lawsuit was “one of the dumbest” he’d ever seen, according to ABC News.

“Mr. and Mrs. Rich should come forward and be honest with people,” he said. “Nobody’s benefited from anything. To file a lawsuit to say that anybody has benefited just smells weird.”

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As of Wednesday, Zimmerman had not publicly addressed the lawsuit. A Fox News spokesperson told ABC News that it had not seen the complaint and could not offer any comment.