Judge: Coaches' $6M Defamation Lawsuit May Proceed

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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)


A Knox County Circuit Court judge allowed a $6 million defamation suit against the mother of a Hardin Valley baseball player to move forward Friday, ruling she wasn't protected from litigation when she publicly accused her son's coaches of child abuse.

Sheri Super, earlier this year, accused head coach Joe Michalski and assistant Zach Luther of abusing their players by hitting them with baseballs during a batting drill.

Investigations, no charges

The complaint launched investigations at the Tennessee Department of Children's Services and the Knox County Sheriff's Office that were eventually closed without any charges.

Her attorney, Nashville lawyer Rocky McElhaney, called the lawsuit "baddish" and "retaliatory" in court documents earlier this month and argued that if the case moved forward, it would create a chilling effect among others who consider reporting child abuse.

Related: HS Coaches Sue Parent for $6M Over Abuse Accusation

"To rule any other way would open the floodgates to these kinds of cases and deter others from coming forward with good faith beliefs of harm to children," he said in court documents.

Jeffrey Whitt, attorney for the coaches, argued Super gave up her protection when she decided to go public with accusations. Rather than reporting the coaches to law enforcement or others who could take action against the abuse, she instead wrote a letter to school officials.

She then shared that letter with others in the community and the news media, he said.

Judge rules in favor of coaches

"The public should know that if you make a good faith referral within the rules of law, you will absolutely be protected," Whitt said after the ruling. "But if you go public, you lose those protections and you risk that if you're wrong about the allegations, because they turn out to be untrue, you've got yourself on the hook - and that's where we are now."

Judge Bill Ailor agreed, ruling in favor of the coaches in the courtroom on Friday. He had not yet signed an order on the motion as of Friday afternoon.

McElhaney could not be immediately reached for comment.

Though the suit asks for the $3 million each -- $1 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages -- what the coaches really want is to restore their reputations, Whitt said.

"What they would like is to be able to go back in time and undo everything that was said, everything that was done, have names and faces removed from social media and the papers," he said. "But they can't do that. What we can do is make effort to resolve this matter and put their good reputation back in form."

Super wrote to Hardin Valley Academy Principal Sallee Reynolds and Athletic Director George Ashe earlier this year complaining about the coaches' behavior.

The coaches claim Super lied about injuries to a player and sent a letter to school administrators detailing an "incredibly dangerous" practice drill that was both "emotionally and physically abusive."

The coaches said Super knowingly made a false allegation in retaliation over earlier disagreements about her son's involvement with the team.

The video

Video of the practice taken from the bleachers and provided to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee by Super appears to show a coach repeatedly striking players in the batter's box with pitches.

According to Super, the players were forced to stand in the batter's box while Luther threw the pitches and Michalski watched from first base during the drill. A photo provided by Super of a player's back shows red marks on his lower left side.

The balls used during the drill were not real baseballs, but a lightweight "training" ball, according to the lawsuit. The player whose injuries Super had referred to in her allegations had actually received the bruise from a real baseball during a scrimmage, the lawsuit claims.

The drill was prompted by a player who stepped out of the batter's box during a March 8 scrimmage against Webb School to avoid being hit by a pitch, according to Super. No one was allowed to leave the batter's box during practice until they were hit by a pitch, Super said.

"What makes me angry is that my son has had two concussions since May of last year," Super told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee at the time. "What if they would have accidentally hit him the head? At that point, we are talking about double vision and cognitive functioning, not whether he has a career playing at Vanderbilt."

Super's son, shortstop Ryder Green, has committed to play for Vanderbilt University next year. He has since transferred from Hardin Valley to Knoxville Christian.

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September 23, 2017


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