Seventeen years ago, after a former World Wrestling Entertainment referee claimed on Geraldo Rivera’s syndicated TV show that Vincent McMahon had sexually assaulted her, the WWE founder and his wife Linda McMahon filed a lawsuit against the woman and media outlets who had made her claims public, asking for $1 million in damages due to “severe emotional distress.”
Linda McMahon, who served as WWE’s CEO and is now the Republican Senate nominee in Connecticut, has been deflecting past stories about the wrestling company for months as she battles Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal for the state’s open Senate seat now held by a Democrat. Before McMahon even captured the GOP nomination, Democrats were pushing videos of old WWE sketches that depicted mock necrophilia and simulated rape scenes. The prevalence of steroids in the “sport” and the deaths of wrestlers associated with WWE have been major political problems for the McMahon campaign.
In the McMahons’ lawsuit — which you can read in full here — they detailed what they said were false allegations from the former employee, Rita Chatterton. Known in the ring as “Rita Marie,” Chatterton was the first female referee for WWE, which at the time of the lawsuit was known as the WWF.
On March 5, 1993, the WWE’s principal outside counsel Jerry McDevitt and another attorney filed suit in federal district court in Connecticut on behalf of the McMahons. Named in the suit were Chatterton, Geraldo Rivera, the Tribune Entertainment Co. and The Investigative News Group. The McMahons asked for $50,000 in compensatory damages, $1 million in punitive damages and reimbursement of legal fees.
According to the McMahon filing, Chatterton taped an interview for an April 3, 1992 episode of Geraldo Rivera’s “Now It Can Be Told” show. The 22-minute episode was titled “Wrestling’s Ring Of Vice,” the suit says.
According to the filing, Chatterton told Craig Rivera, Geraldo’s brother and a reporter for the show, that McMahon had forced himself on her sexually. The filing states that Chatterton’s comments were “making it clear to all viewers that her allegation was that McMahon had raped her.” The McMahons asserted in the lawsuit that Chatterton’s comments were false.
Also named in the lawsuit was former wrestler David Shults, whom the McMahons alleged conspired with Chatterton. Shults was fired in 1985, according to the suit, for “erratic” behavior. Shults was the wrestler known for the notorious 1984 incident in which he slapped John Stossel, then of ABC News, on camera during a 20/20 segment, after Stossel asked him if professional wrestling was fake. Stossel later sued WWF over the incident and won.
McDevitt told TPM in an interview this week that the McMahons eventually dropped the lawsuit one year later so they could focus on the federal criminal charges brought against WWE and Vince McMahon involving steroids, a case in which WWE and McMahon were ultimately acquitted.
“We had to marshal our resources to defend the company’s reputation in the criminal case … we had no choice but to abandon the case in order to defend ourselves,” McDevitt told TPM.
Linda McMahon specifically detailed her grievances in a loss of consortium claim in the lawsuit. The complaint said “Mrs. McMahon has been denied [Vince] McMahon’s companionship, affection and moral support.” The suit also says Linda McMahon was “deprived” of her husband’s “society”:
As a direct and proximate result of the injuries to her husband, Plaintiff Mrs. McMahon has been denied McMahon’s companionship, affection and moral support. Furthermore Mrs. McMahon has likewise suffered extreme emotional distress and/or other injuries including, but not limited to, mental anguish, anger, embarrassment, shame, humiliation, depression, and loss of sleep.
Vince McMahon made similar claims for damages.
The 18-count lawsuit claimed that Chatterton and Shults conspired in 1992 to make an audio recording of the former referee leveling accusations against Vince McMahon, designed to sound as if it had been made in 1988. It also claims that Chatterton’s counsel demanded $5 million in exchange for agreeing to “waive her First Amendment right to speak out.”
UPI reported in 1993 that Rivera called the lawsuit a “mark of honor.”
A WWE spokesman told TPM this week that Chatterton’s accusations were a “$5 million shakedown,” and suggested Democrats had “dropped that one on the media.”
“We don’t pay money for blackmail,” McDevitt told TPM.
McDevitt told TPM that Chatterton was “making a claim out of nowhere,” calling it “a very amazing kind of episode.” Chatterton, fired for cause by WWE in 1986, never filed a lawsuit or a police report, McDevitt told TPM. “It never went to trial, much to my regret,” McDevitt said. “I would have loved to have taken it to trial.”
TPM could find no evidence that Chatterton ever filed a police report, and McDevitt said the statute of limitation has long run out on her claim.
TPM’s attempts to reach Chatterton have been unsuccessful. The McMahon campaign referred questions to McDevitt.
After his initial interview, McDevitt sent TPM an email calling Chatterton’s allegations “false and defamatory.” In the interview, McDevitt had declined to answer a hypothetical about whether the McMahons’ lawsuit could ever be brought forward again. McDevitt wrote TPM:
When you asked me that question yesterday, I told you I would not answer a hypothetical question.
I have thought about your question overnight. We did quite a bit of discovery in that case and would have loved to have tried that case but could not for the reasons I explained. But make no mistake-if those false allegations are repeated now and again, Mr. McMahon will pursue all available remedies against those associated with this smear job.
When TPM told McDevitt that a story detailing the lawsuit would be published today, he said, “You do so at your peril. Preserve all your notes, I’m going to send a litigation hold notice.”
He added, “We will treat any republication of those allegations as libel and defamation. … I say this on behalf of Mr. McMahon.”
Additional reporting by Jon Terbush and David Kurtz