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Banned fan suing Utah Jazz, Russell Westbrook for public defamation

By Ryan Miller, | Posted - Dec. 16, 2019 at 8:40 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — The man who was given a lifetime ban from Vivint Smart Home Arena last March is now suing the Utah Jazz and NBA player Russell Westbrook for public defamation.

In a lawsuit filed in 4th District Court on Monday, Shane Keisel and his girlfriend Jennifer Huff claim that Keisel was wrongly accused of making racist comments toward then-Oklahoma City point guard Westbrook during a March 11 game.

During the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook was filmed screaming vulgarities and threats toward Keisel. Following the game, Westbrook claimed that he was responding to “racial” and “disrespectful” comments that included the phrase “get down on your knees like you used to.”

Following an investigation of the incident, the Utah Jazz banned Keisel from all Vivint Smart Home Arena events.

Keisel’s attorneys argue in the lawsuit that Westbrook mischaracterized the interaction. The lawsuit argues that Keisel was only commenting about how Westbrook had wrapped his knees and that the “heckling was of the same kind and caliber as that of the other audience members in the section.”

The lawsuit argues that “Westbrook’s claims were false and have no basis in fact.”

The lawsuit is seeking $68 million for Keisel and $32 million for Huff on claims of defamation and emotional distress. The lawsuit claims that Keisel, who is described as a veteran and a former cop, was fired from his job at the Brent Brown Toyota car dealership after the altercation made national news and he was also terminated from a pilot training program at SkyWest.

The lawsuit argues that Westbrook’s explanation of the incident was to help him save face for yelling into the crowd.

It states that “Westbrook knew that he faced criticism for shouting profanities and threats at the audience, particularly in Utah where Mr. Westbrook had previously had altercations with audience members” and “that the NBA had not fined him for two previous outbursts at audience members in 2018 after Mr. Westbrook claimed in an interview that other audience members had directed ‘disrespectful’ comments at Mr. Westbrook about his family and/or his children.”

“Mr. Westbrook therefore,” the lawsuit reads, “attempted to blame the altercation on Ms. Huff and Mr. Keisel.”

Westbrook now plays for the Houston Rockets.

Keisel’s lawyers also claim the Jazz’s response to the incident — which included a press release announcing the ban as well as Jazz owner Gail Miller’s anti-racism comments before the next game — were made with “knowledge of their falsity or, at best, reckless disregard for their falsity.”

The lawsuit claims that the Jazz’s investigation was lacking. It argues that Keisel was contacted by the Jazz for the first time roughly 45 minutes before the ban was announced and that Huff was never contacted as part of the investigation. The lawsuit also claims that “most of the witnesses were not contacted or interviewed” by the Jazz.

Keisel’s lawyers argue that the Jazz faced “public pressure” to act quickly, and thus had an “inadequate” investigation that corroborated “Westbrook’s false account of the altercation.”

On March 14, Miller took center court before the Jazz and Timberwolves tipped off and shared a heartfelt message with the crowd.

“I am extremely disappointed that one of our, quote, 'fans' conducted himself in such a way as to offend not only our guests in our arena but also me, personally, my family, our organization, the community, our players and you, as the best fans in the NBA," Miller said.

Keisel's lawsuit argues that Miller's language during that speech “made it clear to the audience that … the Utah Jazz were claiming that their investigation of video footage and eyewitness accounts had confirmed that the fan, Mr. Keisel, had committed an offensive act of racism.”

Utah Jazz spokesman Frank Zang issued a statement from the organization on Monday night: "We believe there is no legal or factual basis for these claims against the Utah Jazz. The organization investigated the underlying incident and acted in an appropriate and responsible manner. We intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

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