Appeals Court Rules Bill Cosby Can Be Liable for What His Attorney Said

Bill Cosby - Janice Dickinson  - Split- Getty-H 2019
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images; Mark Makela/Getty Images

Janice Dickinson may have settled her defamation lawsuit against Bill Cosby for an "epic amount," but apparently, neither Dickinson nor Cosby's insurer broke the news to a California appellate authority quickly enough. As a result, California's Second Appellate District fired off a precedential opinion on Friday that holds that Cosby can be liable for his lawyer's press statement.

The source of the controversy is Dickinson's allegation of being drugged and raped by the comedian in the '80s and Cosby's ex-lawyer Martin Singer's media response about how her claims represented a "fabricated and... outrageous, defamatory lie." In a longer statement that provoked defamation suits from many other women, Singer also said, "The new, never-before-heard claims from women who have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40 or even 50 years ago have escalated far past the point of absurdity."

Dickinson's settlement moots the ramifications of the latest opinion at least for her, but the decision nevertheless could represent an important one in the future relationship between individuals and their lawyers, and the things they tell the public.

Justice Patricia Bigelow points to a declaration from Singer that the attorney maintained a general practice to discuss press statements with clients and get approval before transmitting them. Singer also testified at deposition that he did not have discretion to independently respond to media inquiries regarding Dickinson.

"From this evidence, the fact finder could reasonably infer that Singer sought and received Cosby’s approval or authorization of the press releases before they were issued," she writes.

Perhaps more provocatively, the California appellate court takes up how Cosby may have ratified the statements even if he never explicitly approved press statements.

"Here, Dickinson presented evidence that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982," states the opinion. "Assuming this evidence is true — as we must for purposes of an anti-SLAPP motion — it follows that Cosby knew the press releases, which implied Dickinson was lying, contained falsehoods. Given Singer was Cosby’s attorney and represented himself as such in the press releases, it is reasonable to infer that Cosby also expected the statements contained therein would be attributed to him. Nonetheless, the evidence shows Cosby did not immediately terminate the agency relationship with Singer after he issued the press releases; nor did Cosby issue a retraction or clarification."

That last part breaks some ground as it appears to impute some post-publication responsibility on individuals for what their lawyers say publicly. 

Here's the full opinion.