A Franklin man seen on video telling a teenage boy wearing a prom dress “you look like an idiot” has filed a federal lawsuit against comedian Kathy Griffin, claiming her tweets caused the incident to go viral and led to his firing as CEO of a tele-health company.
Sam Johnson filed suit in the U.S. Middle District Court on Monday seeking a “substantial” but unspecified amount for the emotional distress, mental anguish and other damages he said he endured once Griffin retweeted the video depicting his response to Franklin High School students on prom night — April 24 of last year. Jill Johnson, Johnson’s wife, joined her husband in filing suit.
Johnson was fired as CEO of Franklin-based VisuWell and removed from its board once the video was widely shared. Jill Johnson’s business suffered and she was subject to online harassment, including rape and death threats, the lawsuit said. The couple say that Griffin was responsible.
Griffin, the lawsuit said, “opens the digital Floodgates to the video clip and embarks on a malicious campaign to terminate Mr. Johnson’s employment contract.”
Griffin did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Tuesday.
In the video, Johnson can be seen lingering near 18-year-old Dalton Stevens, dressed in a floor-length red dress on the night of his Franklin High School prom. Stevens’ boyfriend, Jacob Geittmann, is nearby shooting video with his cell phone.
Stevens tells Johnson to “(expletive) off” and leave the two alone.
“I’m sorry, I’m gorgeous,” he tells Johnson.
“Are you,” Johnson asks smiling.
A few minutes later, Johnson tells Stevens “you look like an idiot.”
Before the video ends, male and female adult voices off-camera can be heard urging Johnson to leave the teens alone.
The video was posted to Tik Tok the same day, then shared on Twitter. Two days later, it was tweeted from Griffin’s Twitter account, where she has 2 million followers. The video was also shared from numerous other Twitter accounts, including those with large platforms such as celebrity watcher Perez Hilton and People Magazine.
VisuWell customers soon tweeted disavowals of Johnson’s behavior. On the evening of April 26, a tweet from VisuWell’s account said that the company had fired Johnson and “unequivocally condemns the behavior exhibited by Sam Johnson.” The company also responded directly to Griffin’s question of whether Johnson had any remaining ties to the company in a Tweet that said “terminated, confirmed.”
“But for Ms. Griffin’s first tweet on April 26, 2021, the Video Clip and the April 24 incident would not have gone viral on the internet,” the lawsuit said. The video “would have been quickly forgotten and would not have been used by VisuWell as a basis to terminate Mr. Johnson’s employment contract.”
The lawsuit claims Johnson had been assured by VisuWell’s chairman that the company “had no plans to terminate Mr. Johnson and would stand by him despite the social media publication of the video clip” the day before Griffin’s tweet.
The lawsuit claims the Johnsons received numerous online threats as a direct result of Griffin’s call to make them “online famous,” that Jill Johnson’s company lost profits and the couple “felt terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed and molested.”