12:29pm PT by Eriq Gardner, Austin Siegemund-Broka
Anita Busch vs. Michael Ovitz: Trial Date Set in Pellicano Showdown
More than ten years after a dead fish, a rose and a card that read "Stop" was left on the windshield of former Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch's car, she'll be going to trial in an attempt to pin blame on Michael Ovitz for the intimidation that was allegedly organized by Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano.
At a key hearing on Friday, Los Angeles Court judge Elihu Berle gave a tentative go-ahead for Busch to pursue Michael Ovitz, the former president of Disney who co-founded CAA. The judge declined Ovitz's motion to determine on summary judgment that Busch's claims fell outside the statute of limitations. The judge also said that what Busch knew -- and when she knew it -- will be tested at a trial set for this September.
If Busch timely filed her claims — including infliction of emotional distress, assault and invasion of privacy — that would set the stage for a second phase of the trial that would happen no later than October 2014 and determine Ovitz's culpability and whether he will have to pay damages to Busch. Ovitz won't be alone. Other co-defendants in Busch's lawsuit include telephone company Pac Bell and Ovitz's law firm of Gorry Meyer & Rudd.
Ovitz has been targeted by Busch for allegedly putting Pellicano up to no good. The private eye remains in prison, having been sentenced in 2008 to 15 years for running a wiretapping enterprise on behalf of some of the most powerful figures in Hollywood
Busch, who was also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, came to suspect that her reporting might have triggered someone who wished to stop her. The initial suspicion centered on Steven Seagal and a former producing partner, but the FBI later said there was "no evidence" of a Seagal link.
Later, speculation turned to Ovitz, the subject of many of Busch's stories from 2002, when the rose-and-fish attack happened.
According to court papers from the case, on the day of the attack, an LAT editor mentioned Ovitz's name, and Busch laughed it off as a joke. In February 2003, Hollywood attorney Bert Fields told Busch that she might wish to look beyond Seagal. In 2003, she jotted down in notes, "Dear God...it could have only been one person... only one person makes sense and that is Michael Ovitz."
According to documents, Busch's lawyer said she only figured out "Ovitz's liability" in 2006 when The New York Times reported, based on FBI summaries, that Ovitz acknowledged hiring Pellicano a few months before the rose incident. The timing matters. Busch was on the clock for statute-of-limitations purposes from the moment she connected the dots about what happened. In other Pellicano-related lawsuits, Tom Cruise and Brad Grey have been able to beat claims on similar statute of limitations grounds.
In this case, Busch originally filed her lawsuit in May 2004 against anonymous John Does. Two years later, she amended her lawsuit with names.
At Friday's hearing, Judge Berle threw out a wiretapping charge that Busch had brought because the statute of limitations for that cause of action is just one year. But the judge denied a summary judgment motion on the other charges. The judge made the ruling based on a code that was enacted in 2003 that extended the statute of limitations from one to two years on the personal injury causes filed by Busch.
Ovitz might be able to escape liability if he can show that Busch had reason to bring her claims sooner. But that will be tried at Stage 1 of the trial. As the judge has characterized the standard: "Did [Busch] know actual facts to cause a reasonable person to believe liability is probable against Ovitz as opposed to mere suspicion that Ovitz was responsible for the alleged wrongful acts?"
The trial that will begin in September will be the latest chapter in the Pellicano affair. This one will be worth watching. Instead of focusing on Anthony Pellicano, it will be concerned with what went through the mind of a journalist who was subject to a Pellicano attack. It will likely provide great detail on Busch's moves in the months after a card that read "Stop" was left on her windshield.