January 06, 2012 7:48am PT by Matthew Belloni
Ryan O'Neal Wins Key Ruling in Defamation Lawsuit Against Farrah Fawcett Friend (Exclusive)
A Los Angeles judge is allowing Ryan O’Neal’s lawsuit to move forward against a film/TV producer who allegedly defamed the actor by claiming he stole one of two Andy Warhol paintings owned by O’Neal ex Farrah Fawcett.
Craig Nevius, who produced a TV show about the late actress (Chasing Farrah) and worked on a documentary about her fight against cancer, was sued by O’Neal in July over comments Nevius allegedly made in Star magazine and on Good Morning America.
The move followed O’Neal being sued in a separate action by the University of Texas, which claims that Fawcett bequeathed to it all of her artwork when she passed away in 2009, including a Warhol piece that O’Neal claims is his. When Nevius, who was friendly with Fawcett before she died, spoke out about Fawcett’s artwork and suggested O'Neal was a thief, O’Neal sued for $1 million for defamation.
Nevius then fought back, filing a motion under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which allows for certain lawsuits concerning public speech to be dismissed at an early stage of litigation.
In the process, Nevius claimed he hadn't told the university or the investigators that O’Neal had “stolen” anything. “Nevius never stated to any reporter that O’Neal had ‘stolen’ or ‘concealed’ the Warhol portrait and never said that there was any ‘police’ investigation of O’Neal,” according to the motion.
However, during the litigation an email was produced showing that Nevius had told a vice chancellor at the university that O’Neal’s ownership of the Warhol was a “fraud” and “theft.” Nevius later changed his story, according to court papers, saying he wasn't sure if O'Neal was a thief.
That fact did not sit well with Judge Linda Lefkowitz, who on Thursday denied the motion to dismiss and ruled that O'Neal likely has met the extremely high burden for showing that he has been defamed.
Nevius “now admits that he made at least one statement to the media which could be interpreted as meaning that [O’Neal] had been ‘caught’ doing something wrong,” states the ruling, a copy of which was obtained by THR. “Yet, faced with the email, he now concedes in a declaration filed with this court that despite these public statements, ‘in fact, I do not to this day know if Mr. O’Neal ‘stole’ or ‘concealed’ anything.”
Celebrities and other public figures have a tough time proving defamation in the U.S. because they must show that the person making the defamatory statement knew or had reason to know it was false and did so with "actual malice."
Here, because Nevius later backtracked from his statements, the judge finds that there is sufficiently clear and convincing evidence as to his own doubt in the truth of the statements and a sufficient basis for the court to find that [O'Neal] has shown 'actual malice' at the time the statements were uttered and thus a probability of prevailing upon his claims."
UPDATE: Nevius' attorney Lincoln Bandlow gives us the following statement vowing to appeal the ruling:
The Court correctly found that O'Neal's lawsuit is aimed at my client's speech about matters of public interest. That important speech was this: for years Farrah Fawcett had in her possession two valuable portraits of her done by Andy Warhol, she repeatedly stated that she owned both of them, she died with both of them hanging on her wall, she left nothing to O'Neal in her will and a year after her death, one of the portraits ended up hanging on O'Neal's wall. The Court repeatedly quizzed O'Neal's lawyer about how it got there. O'Neal and his lawyer have no answer to that question. Based on the overwhelming evidence that Mr. Nevius had at the time he spoke, it was imminently reasonable to conclude that Mr. O'Neal took something that does not belong to him. Thus, the Court's conclusion that my client could have possibly had a state of mind that resembles anything close to constitutional actual malice when he spoke is simply incorrect. We will immediately appeal and we are highly confident the ruling will be reversed. Meanwhile, the action by the University of Texas against Mr. O'Neal - an action that exactly contends that O'Neal took a Warhol portrait that did not belong to him - is going forward and may very well prove my client's statement was true while our appeal is pending.
O'Neal is repped by Marty Singer and Todd Eagan at Lavely and Singer. Nevius is repped by Bandlow at L.A.'s Lathrop and Gage firm.