Friday, February 15, 2013

Farrah, Warhol and Ryan O'Neal

A Los Angeles court has just handed actor Ryan O'Neal a monster legal win, one that could help him add to his $12 million net worth.

The Court of Appeal for the State of California, Second Appellate District, known among the lawyer-class as one of the brainiest in the state, has ruled that Mr. O'Neal could go ahead with his defamation suit against Farrah Fawcett's former personal assistant. As you might recall Mr. O'Neal and Ms. Fawcett, a TV personality and sex kitten of the 1970s, were friends and intimates for decades. Mr. O'Neal sued Craig Nevius for claiming that O'Neal committed a crime (a no-no in media law unless you have a police report). He claimed the actor stole a painting of Fawcett by Andy Warhol. A signed martini napkin by Warhol is gold, and this painting is worth $30 million. (The University of Texas claims Ms. Fawcett bequeathed it to the university and Mr. O'Neal disputes it. That's a separate lawsuit.)

Mr. O'Neal says the painting, one of two Warhol works of beauty Fawcett, wasn't stolen by him because he owns it. He sued Nevius for his defaming comments. Nevius defended himself by filing a motion used by newspapers called an anti-SLAPP motion. Essentially, an anti-SLAPP defense permits a person to speak his mind on public issues without fear of being sued. But, the state's anti-SLAPP law has a hole, which says if the wronged litigant has a good chance of winning his case for defamation, the matter should be heard in a trial. That is where O'Neal v. Nevius is now likely headed -- although our money's on a pretrial settlement in which Nevius begs for mercy and hands over what pitiful valuables he has.

Two of three appellate justices who heard the case sided with Mr. O'Neal. "We find the trial court was correct in its determination that O'Neal presented sufficient evidence of Nevius's malice to demonstrate O'Neal had a probability of prevailing on his complaint," the justices said in their ruling Feb. 14th. The justices went so far as to say Nevius "asserted that O'Neal was a fraud, a thief and a criminal" and that Nevius "hates O'Neal so much." The justices said Mr. O'Neal could be able to prove "actual malice" by Nevius, a legally damning statement in a defamation case.
One justice, however, sided with Nevius in a weak dissent. For naught, though. As the late-city attorney of Riverside, California, John Woodhead, once informed the then-Assistant District Attorney of Riverside County and later Superior Court Judge Jay Hanks, after Hanks tried to use a "dissenting opinion" to sway the Riverside City Council: "Let me remind the assistant district attorney, dissent means you lose."

What I particularly liked about this ruling is it is a strong reminder to bloggers on the Web who fashion themselves neo-journalists. Think you can say anything about people, especially celebrities such Mr. O'Neal -- who for this case was ruled a "public figure" under The New York Times v. Sullivan (1964)? No, you surly cannot. The old newspaper-bound laws of libel and defamation of character have gone digital.

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