Section IV Libel Law/Punitive Damages/Tort Actions: D
D. Court Permits Suit To Go Forward in 'Natural Born Killers' Case

   A Louisiana appellate court recently added to the growing and controversial body of case law involving liability for depictions of violent behavior emulated by persons exposed to the depictions, causing injury or death. In a decision entitled Byers v. Edmondson, 712 So.2d 681 (1998), the Louisiana Court of Appeal (First Circuit) held that the victims of a convenience store shooting could sue the producers of the film "Natural Born Killers," including Time Warner Entertainment and Oliver Stone, on the grounds that the perpetrators of the shooting had gone on a crime and shooting spree after seeing the film. The suit alleged that the producers of "Natural Born Killers," labeled collectively in the complaint as "the Hollywood defendants," were liable to the victims for distributing a film "which they knew or should have known would cause and inspire people" to acts of violence by, among other things, "glorifying" such violence and "treating individuals who commit such violence as celebrities and heroes."

   The defendants filed a "peremptory exception," equivalent to a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, arguing that the defendants owed no duty to prevent viewers of the movie from imitating actions depicted in their fictional film. The defendants also claimed that their actions in producing and distributing the film were protected by the First Amendment and the free speech provisions of the Louisiana Constitution.

   In a long and consistent line of prior decisions, courts across the country had repeatedly rejected liability against filmmakers, television producers, publishers, and authors arising from "copycat" scenarios, in which persons emulate depictions of violent, destructive, or dangerous behavior, causing serious injury or death. The Louisiana court distinguished this line of precedent in Edmondson, however, focusing on the allegations in the complaint that the defendants "knew, should have known, or intended" that the film would incite acts of violence.

Rice v. Paladin Enterprises

   The Louisiana court relied on a 1997 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc., 128 F.3d 233 (4th Cir.1997). In that ruling the court held that the publisher of the book Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors was not entitled to summary judgment in the face of a set of stipulated facts including assertions that the publisher knew and intended that the book would be used to assist in the crime of murder-for-hire.

   In Rice v. Paladin the stipulated facts established that the book at issue was intended both as a training manual for murder and as a book to be marketed and read by individuals with no criminal intentions, including law enforcement personnel, fiction writers, and persons who wished to read the book for informational or entertainment purposes. The court in Edmondson held that if "the intentional-action allegations contained in the petition can be proven at trial," the imposition of a duty running from the film producers to the public would be warranted and the First Amendment would not protect the producers.

   The procedural posture of Edmondson is worth emphasizing. In choosing to attack the complaint through a device such as a motion to dismiss, the defendants were forced to accept the well-pleaded allegations of the plaintiffs as true. Thus, however implausible it may be that the defendants in fact intended that the violent behavior in the film "Natural Born Killers" would be emulated, this was the factual assumption with which they were stuck for purposes of their attempt to have the case dismissed.

   If there is a lesson for media defendants in appellate decisions such as Edmondson and Rice, therefore, it would appear to be that attempts to have suits dismissed without overcoming factual allegations about the defendant1s intent may not have much chance of success. Under these holdings, to prevail in such cases it appears that defendants will need to defeat such factual allegations, either through motions for summary judgment that eliminate all triable issues of fact on the issue of intent, or by litigating the intent issue at trial.

- Rodney A. Smolla

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