The common interest privilege does not protect an Indiana high school from a defamation claim brought by its former boys basketball coach based on an altered press released the school sent out after an incident during practice in 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.
David McCollough, the longtime boys basketball coach at Noblesville High School, sued the school and its principal, Jeff Bryant, after his contract wasn’t renewed when it expired by its own terms in March 2014. Two months prior, McCollough had allegedly thrown a basketball at a player during a practice in response to that player throwing the basketball rather forcefully at the coach during a drill. Witness accounts vary as to whether the player was hit by the ball on the hand when McCollough threw it, but he has consistently denied that the ball struck the player.
When McCollough learned his contract wouldn’t be renewed, he tried applying as a coach to more than 30 other schools in the state but was not hired. He claimed it had to do with a press release the high school put out after the incident in which McCollough admitted to throwing the ball and hitting the student and apologizing for his actions.
But McCollough has argued that he didn’t sign off on the released statement, in which the word “allegedly” was removed regarding the ball hitting the student. This action serves as the basis for many of his claims against the school and Bryant, including his defamation claim.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on McCollough’s intentional infliction of emotion distress, negligence, breach of contract and tortious interference with a contract/business relationship claims. But the trial denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the defamation claim.
The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court Wednesday, finding questions of fact as to whether the defendants – who admit that McCollough’s statement was revised without his knowledge and consent, removing the word “allegedly” – acted with malice. The defendants argued that other admissions in the statement do more harm to McCollough’s reputation than the sentence about the ball hitting the student. McCollough argued that the removal of “allegedly” conveyed a completely different meaning to the average person about the incident.
The defendants then argued that their communications regarding the incident in question are protected by the common interest privilege, which applies to “communications made in good faith on any subject matter in which the party making the communication has an interest or in reference to which he has a duty, either public or private, either legal, moral or social, if made to a person having a corresponding interest or duty,” the appellate court explained, citing Bals v. Verduzco, 600 N.E.2d 1353, 1356 (Ind. 1992).
The school claimed it has an obligation to tell the community and other stakeholders about the incident between McCollough and a player.
“… Defendants cited no authority to support expansion of the common interest privilege to cover communications between schools and the general public regarding coaching staff. We further disagree with Defendants’ contention that simply because ‘high school basketball reaches its zenith in the Hoosier state,’ important stakeholders include the media,” Judge Robert Altice wrote.
He noted in this case, the corresponding duty for unrestricted communication would more appropriately be between the defendants and the player and their parents.
The case is David McCollough v. Noblesville Schools and Jeff Bryant, 29A02-1512-CT-2181.