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Hot New Hollywood Trend: Crazy Defamation Lawsuits (Analysis)

Multimillion-dollar libel claims by and against celebrities are on the rise. So what if they're not winnable? A guide to what's happening lately and whether there are any solutions to a heavy court docket.

Lindsay Lohan and Pitbull
Getty Images
Lindsay Lohan and Pitbull

Is it just us or are defamation lawsuits getting more insane by the month?

Celebrities have long sued tabloids over things written that nobody believes anyway, but these days, lawsuits stretch from the outrageous to the plain ridiculous. The idea that public figures will have a tough time proving the required "actual malice" and therefore shouldn't bring defamation lawsuits almost seems like an antiquated notion now.

Just this past week, defamation suits were filed involving Lindsay Lohan vs. a rapper, insurance executives vs. Eliot Spitzer, a record executive vs. former New Edition singer Johnny Gill, and last but not least, Oasis singer Liam Gallagher vs. brother Noel Gallagher. Is there some sort of thread that connects these wild lawsuits?

Gallagher v. Gallagher involves comments made to the press about why Oasis was forced to cancel a 2009 concert. It had us scrambling to put together a list of the best all-time defamation lawsuits. Where to begin? Even if we restricted ourselves to claims filed just in the past few months, we'd be sorting through these doozies:

  • Lindsay Lohan is suing rapper Pitbull over a rap lyric, "locked up like Lindsay Lohan." According to the lawsuit: "By virtue of [the song's] wide appeal, condemnation, excoriation, disparaging or defamatory statements by the defendants about [Lohan] are destined to do irreparable harm."
  • A woman is suing A&E Television Networks for supposedly using tricky editing to imply she smuggled drugs in her vagina for her incarcerated husband.
  • "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, one of the most successful contemporary pop music producers, is suing the Bellamy Brothers for defaming him by suggesting his song for Britney Spears, "Hold It Against Me," was plagiarized. Apparently, allegations of copyright theft can rise to libelous statements now.
  • So too are allegations of song leaking. Notifi Records CEO Ira DeWitt is suing former New Edition singer Johnny Gill for making such a suggestion on Twitter.
  • Speaking of Twitter, let's not forget those lawyers suing Courtney Love over comments made on the social platform --  the second time the singer has been sued for alleged tweet defamation.
  • Broadway singer Marty Thomas brought a defamation action against an anonymous person in order to compel Twitter to reveal the identity of the person who accused him of contracting an STD.
  • A newspaper lost a defamation lawsuit, wrote an editorial about what happened, and then got sued for defamation (again) by the judge in the case.

These are just some examples of the more out-there cases. There are also the ones that make news because of huge dollar figures, as well as big personalities, including the $10 million defamation claim against Gawker Media over its Arnold Schwarzenegger love child post, the $50 million defamation lawsuit against MSNBC and host Rachel Maddow over comments made on-air about heavy-metal rocker turned radio host and conservative preacher Bradlee Dean, the $50 million lawsuit against Star Magazine over claims made about an alleged Katie Holmes drug addiction, and now, the $60 million lawsuit against Elliot Spitzer for writing about allegedly corrupt insurance execs in a Slate column.

We don't mean to suggest that these lawsuits have no merit -- some might -- merely that there seems to be more big and bold libel lawsuits than ever before. The traditional technical obstacles presented to "public figures" no longer seem like impediments to a court filing.

This raises a question: Do these plaintiffs get anything for their trouble besides a hefty legal bill and bad headlines?

According to a report last year put out by the Media Law Resource Center, the percentage of plaintiff wins is down significantly. In the 1980s, plaintiffs were winning nearly 63% of the time. These days, it's under 48%.

Then, there's this: According to the MLRC,  punitive damages have dramatically dropped while compensatory awards have risen significantly. This could explain why plaintiffs seem to pull their damage estimates from thin air. There's nothing more nebulous than recompensating someone for emotional suffering.

Put everything together, and we see a digital environment where people have a microphone to shout whatever they'd like. Comments travel further and seemingly hang around nearly forever. And now, sensitive folks rush to courts with defamation claims. The lawsuits may not be winning, but perhaps a settlement can be extracted.

Is there a better way?

Some folks are looking for solutions. 

For example, David Ardia of University of North Carolina School of Law and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, suggested in a recent paper for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review that the law be reformed so as to deemphasize monetary remedies for defamation. Instead, he suggested alternative approaches such as ways to encourage the correcting of inaccurate information, opportunities for contextualization, and harnessing the power of online communities to deter and mitigate reputational harm.

Ardia's ideas may sound somewhat utopian, but clearly there needs to be more thought about revising defamation constructs in the digital age. Until then, enjoy the crazy headlines.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner