Taking on Jimmy Swaggart
25 years ago, Hunter Lundy’s life and career took shape because of the televangelist suit
Published in 2017 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine on December 23, 2016
Hunter Lundy was 32 years old and had just started his own firm in Lake Charles when he filed a $90 million defamation suit against evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. The suit intended to prove that Swaggart, his attorney and other Assemblies of God officials conspired to ruin the reputation of fellow TV preacher Marvin Gorman.
On Sept. 10, 1991, after a 10-week trial, a jury awarded Gorman $10 million in damages. At the time, Lundy had no idea how much the case would affect his career and, in a larger aspect, his life.
“I was a young lawyer when I filed this lawsuit,” Lundy says of Gorman v. Swaggart. “I had just started my own law firm, and probably had more guts than I did sense. People thought I was crazy.”
At the time, Swaggart was rubbing elbows with Pat Robertson, greeting then-President Ronald Reagan as he got off Air Force One, and frequently speaking on major TV networks. Meanwhile, Gorman, also an Assemblies of God preacher, was on the rise. He was in the process of purchasing a TV station in Lake Charles, a deal that never came to fruition, when things went awry.
On July 15, 1986, Swaggart invited Gorman to his home and confronted him with accusations that he engaged in adultery—accusations he would later share with Assemblies of God officials. “They knew he was scheduled to close on a $20 million bonding package. It was the day before the closing that they decided to make the accusations against him and put his finances on notice,” Lundy says.
Gorman resigned from the church the following day, but Swaggart allegedly went further—insisting that two statements be read before the congregation outlining a series of “immoral incidents” and “lascivious conduct.” Suing a man as notable as Swaggart wouldn’t be easy, Lundy says, but Gorman was intent on clearing his name.
“Until [Swaggart] started attacking his kids, he would have never sued,” Lundy says. Gorman’s three children were Assembly of God ministers, and the allegations threatened their credentials. “He filed a suit and basically said the Assemblies of God … were wrong for what they did and they were getting pressure from the Swaggarts and their lawyers. When they put those letters out and went after his children … he sued them.”
Gorman v. Swaggart was initially thrown out on First Amendment grounds, with the court ruling it was an ecclesiastical matter and had no subject matter jurisdiction. Then, about a week before the appeal, “The world found out that Jimmy Swaggart had been caught on Airline Highway with a prostitute,” Lundy says. “That was national news when we rolled into the court of appeals to argue the reversal.”
National and international news outlets subsequently swarmed the civil district court in New Orleans, Lundy says. “There was a People magazine article, front page picture [of Swaggart] that said, ‘I have sinned.’ You’ll see me in that article. There were pictures of us coming out of the courthouse and so forth. … I mean, I never experienced anything like this.”
Gorman’s ultimate $10 million award was the largest defamation verdict in the history of Louisiana. But more importantly: “He felt he was vindicated when the jury verdict came back,” Lundy says.
Twenty-five years later, Lundy would not have done anything differently.
“Our client was adamant about getting his name cleared in the trial, but he had information [about Swaggart’s indiscretions that] he didn’t disclose to us until the world knew about it. Had we known about it, we probably could have gotten the case resolved early on because it was really damaging,” Lundy says. “He did the right thing. He wanted to be vindicated in the trial, and the jury vindicated him.”
Once Lundy returned to Lake Charles, his phone rang off the hook. Many of the calls were from other religious leaders looking for representation. But Lundy didn’t want to be involved in any more “preacher cases.” “I don’t want to do anything that gives Christianity a black eye,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”
Then, one evening in 2004, Lundy called Gorman, who was preparing for a service. “I was just an hour away,” Lundy says, “and 19 years after I’d known him, I’d never heard him preach.” It was a transformative moment, he says, and in 2009 Lundy was ordained by Gorman in the Sanctuary of Hope church in Missouri.
“Brother Gorman was first a client, then became a friend and then became a mentor,” Lundy says.