Ledger plays a role in lawsuit

January 16, 2009

MOVIES / COURTS

Ledger plays a role in lawsuit

Trial is set for next month in a case over a video that shows the late actor with what appears to be cocaine.

By Harriet Ryan

“My client wishes to have privacy. This is not a good thing to have happen to you,” the lawyer, Neville Johnson, said.

In the year since his death, Heath Ledger has become a sainted figure in Hollywood, reverently recalled for his superior talent and good humor. The foreign press genuflected before his memory Sunday with a Golden Globe for his acclaimed performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” and many expect an Academy Award nomination to follow next week.

But in a drab downtown courtroom, a decidedly less glowing portrait holds sway. An unusual lawsuit pitting a freelance magazine reporter against her ex-lover, his colleague and the paparazzo agency that employed them centers on a video of Ledger on a night he may have counted among the most disturbing of his life.

The video, shot in the Chateau Marmont after the 2006 Screen Actors Guild Awards, shows the actor twitching, exhausted and seated at a table marked with what appear to be lines of cocaine. Unaware he is being recorded or that his companions in the hotel room are a tabloid photographer and reporter, Ledger speaks candidly about private subjects, including long-term drug abuse and his relationship with actress Michelle Williams.

“I’m in serious [trouble] with my girlfriend,” he says. “We just had a baby two months ago, and I’m not supposed to be here.”

The video’s release in the wake of Ledger’s Jan. 22, 2008, death from an overdose of prescription medication created an uproar. “Entertainment Tonight” bought rights to the video but decided not to air it in the wake of intense pressure from Ledger’s publicist and celebrities who decried it as tasteless exploitation.

The case, set for trial next month in Los Angeles Superior Court, does not concern damage to Ledger’s reputation – his privacy rights died with him – but rather alleged harm to the reporter, whose conversation is captured on the video. She claims she was duped in- to being filmed and then assured the tape would be destroyed. Identified in court papers as “Jane Doe,” the reporter is suing the paparazzi and their agency, Splash News, for invasion of privacy, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other claims.

She seeks destruction of the video, which is available for viewing online, as well as financial compensation. Her suit claims the video earned Splash $1 million.

April 11, 2008 – A former People magazine freelance reporter listed as “Jane Doe” and represented by Beverly Hills attorney Douglas L. Johnson, has filed a lawsuit against Splash News photo agency and two paparazzi for invasion of privacy for secretly filming her without her permission while filming actor Heath Ledger in a hotel room where drugs were being taken. International news releases report on the lawsuit.

Ledger’s death changed the way everyone involved saw the evening. The reporter contributed her memories to a cover story in OK magazine, where she was quoted as an unnamed source with firsthand experience of Ledger’s drug use. She billed the magazine her $400 day rate, according to court papers. Soon after, Splash offered the tape for sale.

In her deposition, the reporter drew a distinction between her conduct and what the Splash employees had done. “If you bring up someone to have a chat in a room as friends, and, you know, they have a cocaine problem, and then you give them more of their drug of choice … that’s pretty devious. That’s intentional. That can kill the person,” she said.

Selling the story, however, was permissible because “he had passed.”

“It was coming out all over. There was nothing to protect,” she said.

Munn and Banks still work for Splash, but the reporter no longer writes for People. Her attorney declined to say what she is doing now.

“My client wishes to have privacy. This is not a good thing to have happen to you,” the lawyer, Neville L. Johnson, said.