South Carolina Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Former High School Coach in Defamation Case

Moncks Corner, South Carolina – The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a former Berkeley High School head football coach and athletic director, Jeffrey L. Cruce, in a defamation lawsuit against the Berkeley County School District. The court’s decision reverses a previous ruling by a state appeals court.

Cruce filed the lawsuit in 2017, alleging that a district employee had defamed his character. The initial jury awarded him $200,000 in damages, a decision that was reinstated by the Supreme Court. The district contended that Cruce, as a public official, was not entitled to receive damages for defamation. However, the court ruled that Cruce’s position as head coach and athletic director did not make him a public official.

The defamation claim was based on an email sent by a Berkeley High athletic trainer to 45 of Cruce’s peers and colleagues. The contents of the email were not disclosed in court documents, but it conveyed a belief that Cruce had maintained incomplete or disorganized student-athlete files. Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty and Justice John W. Kittredge agreed with Justice D. Garrison Hill, who wrote the majority opinion, that the email message met the definition of recklessness with regard to reputation damage.

Justice George C. James Jr. concurred with the determination that Cruce was not a public official but did not find him to be defamed. Justice John C. Few did not weigh in on the public official matter as he did not consider the email to be defamatory.

Cruce had been employed by the Berkeley County School District since 1991 and had a successful coaching career. He won 10 consecutive region championships as head coach at Hanahan High and eventually returned to Berkeley High in 2011. During his tenure, the Stags won a region championship in 2014. Cruce’s original lawsuit also alleged wrongful termination, claiming that he was fired for not making his players hit more in practice. The district maintained that they terminated him for failing to meet performance goals and declining booster club membership. The trial judge dismissed the wrongful termination claim.

Following his dismissal as football coach and athletic director, Cruce was reassigned as a middle school guidance counselor for the rest of the 2015 academic year. He left the district after the school year ended. The Berkeley County School District is currently reviewing their options in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.