Viacom Avoids Defamation Trial in Settlement Over TLC Biopic

Perri "Pebbles" Reid alleged VH-1's "CrazySexyCool" presented her as a "conniving and dishonest business woman who hoodwinked three innocent girls and exploited their talent for her own personal gain."
VH1

Viacom won't have to face a jury in Georgia federal court after coming to a settlement with Perri "Pebbles" Reid, former manager of the 1990s R&B group TLC. A trial was set to begin on Sept. 24 but the case was administratively closed on Friday after the judge was informed of the deal.

Reid filed a $40 million defamation lawsuit in 2014 after VH-1 aired CrazySexyCool. In a complaint, she objected to being portrayed in the TLC biopic as a "conniving and dishonest business woman who hoodwinked three innocent girls and exploited their talent for her own personal gain."

Viacom attempted to get the case dismissed by presenting its film as a story told from the perspective of the two surviving members of TLC, who cooperated fully in its development.  The media company urged the judge to recognize there was no actual malice in what had been broadcast and with nods to such films as Selma, The Social Network and Ray, that creative liberties were often taken by those who make docudramas. 

In a summary judgment opinion, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen concluded that not everything Reid was upset about in CrazySexyCool was capable of defamatory meaning, but some scenes were indeed capable of supporting a defamation claim. Specifically, the judge allowed Reid to take Viacom to trial over scenes where she was shown pressuring the group's members to sign contracts without sufficient time, for scenes showing Reid exerting control over lawyers for the group's members, for scenes that conveyed the idea that Reid improperly deducted expenses and only paid TLC $25 a week and for a scene conveying it was Reid's decision to remove Chilli from TLC.

The fact that Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas cooperated with filmmakers ended up hurting Viacom as the judge accepted Reid's word there may have been bias.

Viacom urged reconsideration by telling the judge he got the analysis of the actual malice standard wrong. Viacom contended there wasn't any evidence of how it had any reason to believe the information obtained was unreliable. The judge responded that subjective doubt wasn't the rule and that in any event, a conclusion about the filmmakers' state of mind was something for a jury.

There won't be a trial now, thanks to the settlement.

Lin Wood, attorney for Reid, says terms of the resolution are confidential.

Viacom was represented by Elizabeth McNamara.

The case may not be the last word on actual malice in the context of docudramas. As reported here this week, 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland wants the U.S. Supreme Court to review a dismissal of her own lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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