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Is It Getting Easier to Win Libel Suits?

August 21, 1997|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do casino mogul Steve Wynn, Priscilla Presley and the lawyers for Sharon Stone have in common?

They are among the better-known figures who have filed suits challenging the veracity of statements made or published about them, prompting speculation that a flurry of high-profile libel cases may follow.

Case in point: A jury in Las Vegas last week awarded $3.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Wynn after he won a libel case against maverick publisher Lyle Stuart and his company, Barricade Books, which in 1995 brought out John L. Smith's "Running Scared," an unauthorized biography of the Mirage Resorts Inc. chairman. The case focused on a description in a Barricade catalog that said the book would lay out "why a Scotland Yard report calls Wynn a front man" for the Genovese crime family.

Stuart's attorneys say they will appeal. Meanwhile, Stuart and Smith, a columnist with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, face a second, similar lawsuit filed by Wynn.

Case in point: Publication this month of Suzanne Finstad's "Child Bride" (Harmony), an unauthorized biography of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, comes in the wake of a $10-million defamation suit filed by the actress in Los Angeles against one of the author's key sources. Currie Grant is being sued for defamatory remarks he allegedly made to Finstad and others about the actress, including statements that at age 14 she carried on a sexual affair with Grant before he introduced her to Elvis Presley.

Presley's suit was filed in Los Angeles 10 months ago and is not tied to publication of the newly released "Child Bride," which quotes Grant's recollection of being intimate with her (and her denials). Nevertheless, the actress' attorney, who said on Monday that he had yet to see the book, held out the possibility that he also might sue the author and publisher.

"We stand by the book completely," Hilary Bass, a spokeswoman for Harmony Books, said Tuesday. "It went through an extensive legal vetting." Grant could not be reached by phone.

Case in point: Publication this summer of Frank Sanello's "Naked Instinct" (Carol), an unauthorized biography of Sharon Stone, has prompted a law firm that represents the actress, as well as one of its principals, to sue the author and publisher of the book for defamation and invasion of privacy.

The lawyers in Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman claim in the complaint, filed last month in Los Angeles, that their reputations were seriously damaged by the defendants when they knowingly and recklessly published false statements attributed to William J. Skrzyniarz, who is of counsel to the Beverly Hills firm. Sanello writes that Skrzyniarz (whose name is misspelled in the book) "told me after two bottles of merlot on New Year's Eve 1996, 'When Sharon wants someone, she rents a hotel room and tells him exactly when and where to show up. . . . She's made the move on some major names.' "

Asked to comment on the suit, Bruce Bender, the president of Carol Publishing, said this week: "Our position is that there were other people present when the statements were made and we stand behind our author."

In cases such as these, the law requires different levels of proof.

Martin D. Singer, the Los Angeles attorney who is representing Presley, explained that a plaintiff in a he-said, she-said defamation suit needn't go much further than prove that a statement is false, typically through the use of third-party witnesses. However, in a libel case stemming from the publication of questioned material, the law requires a plaintiff not only to prove falsehood, but also to show that the publisher knew the material was false but published it recklessly and with malice.

It's that extra responsibility that makes libel cases hard to win. Another of Singer's clients, Eddie Murphy, earlier this month dropped his $5-million libel suit against the National Enquirer, which had described the actor's alleged get-togethers with two transsexuals. A statement issued by Murphy and the tabloid said: "After an investigation of the matter, Mr. Murphy has concluded that the National Enquirer did not publish its article about Mr. Murphy with malice or recklessly."

Although Murphy also agreed to reimburse the Enquirer what it had spent in legal fees, Singer said this week that his firm is pursuing action against the sources for the paper's story.

When celebrities fight back, or win as grandly as Wynn did last week, does it spur other personalities to seek libel judgments?

Yes, said Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer.

"I think one of the real risks of suits like Steve Wynn's is that extremely wealthy and powerful people will use the courts against individuals who have a lot of trouble defending themselves, with the effect, ultimately, of restricting the nature and range of what is said," Abrams stated. The lawyer said he found it troubling that the jury in the Wynn case would award more than $3 million because of a description in a catalog.

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