Bill Cosby Loses Bid to Dismiss Libel Lawsuit Brought By Rape Accusers

Bill Cosby 5 - H 2014
AP Images

Bill Cosby 5 - H 2014

In perhaps the most significant legal development since the scandal surrounding Bill Cosby erupted, a Massachusetts federal court on Friday denied the embattled comedian's bid to dismiss a libel lawsuit brought by three women.

Tamara Green, Therese Serignese and Linda Traitz are the plaintiffs in the case. The women allege that they were victimized by a sexual assault by Cosby. But because of the statute of limitations, they can't sue Cosby for the alleged crime.

Instead, the three women claim their reputations were tarnished when Cosby's reps told news outlets that the rape claims were "fabricated," "ridiculous" and "absurd," among other comments.

In an opinion today (read here), U.S. District Judge Mark Mastroianni rejected all of Cosby's reasons to throw out the lawsuit at this juncture. He analyzed libel standards such as whether the comments were "of and concerning" the defendants and whether the comments could be characterized as "predictable opinions." The judge concluded that a jury could find that the comments addressed the women and that the gist — basically that they fabricated tales of rape — is provable as true or false. It will be up to a jury to find whether the statements are capable of defamatory meaning.

This latest decision could prompt more lawsuits against Cosby. The failure to dismiss this case will certainly mean Cosby will have to give more depositions. And from a legal standpoint, there's also some precedent being made today.

For one thing, Mastroianni addressed whether a celebrity can be liable for the comments of his reps.

"Given Defendant’s prominence in the entertainment field, the court infers he surrounded himself with people accomplished in media relations and legal matter," writes the judge. "The court also infers those making Defendant’s public statements had an open line of communication with him as well as some historical perspective on his public relations matters. Based on the facts and inferences, the court finds it plausible at this point to conclude (1) those agents would have had, at a minimum, some sense of Defendant’s alleged conduct, such that their duty of care would have required them to take steps to determine the truth or falsity of the statements, and (2) the content of their responsive statements demonstrates such reasonable care was not taken."

Mastroianni also rejected Cosby's argument that he was within rights to make "privileged utterances of self-defense."

"The court recognizes that some jurisdictions do apply a version of the conditional self-defense privilege, which allows individuals, in certain circumstances, to publish defamatory responsive statements necessary to defend their reputation," the judge responded. "However, as recognized by the cases Defendant himself cites ... such a privilege does not permit a defendant to knowingly publish false statements of fact."

In other words, what Cosby's reps said about his accusers could be shown to be knowingly false, which rises above being merely false.

Mastroianni's opinion also might break ground on the issue of statute of limitations. One of the articles in question is a November 2014 article in the Washington Post about Green, who claims to have been a victim of Cosby's in the 1970s. In response to the story, Cosby lawyer Walter Phillips Jr. commented, "Mr. Cosby does not know the name Tamara Green or Tamara Lucier [her maiden name], and the incident she describes did not happen."

After the article was published, a correction was added that perhaps suggested Phillips' comment was made in 2005 rather than 2014. As such, Cosby argued that it was barred by statute of limitations and the "single publication" rule (see here how that works), but Mastroianni agrees with Green's lawyer that the press statement was given with the expectation it would be reported again. He rules that Cosby may be held liable for the "foreseeable republication" of a decade-old statement.

The new ruling comes just two days after Cosby failed to win terminating sanctions in an assault lawsuit brought by Judy Huth, who alleges she was victimized as a minor. The judge in that case only addressed a procedural point about how the case was initiated. The judge there still is being asked to dismiss the case on other grounds. The decision today makes a case against Cosby move a bit closer to trial — although it wouldn't be shocking to see an interim appeal attempted — and could be meaningful to other accusers who have been warring with Cosby's camp in the media.

The plaintiffs are represented by Joseph Cammarata, who said in a statement, "This is a wonderful day."