Tom Cruise Vs. The Gossip Rags: How Hard Is It To Win A Defamation Case?

  @christopherzarac.zara@ibtimes.com on October 25 2012 1:42 PM
Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise Reuters

It’s risky business, but it’s not mission impossible.

Tom Cruise may have an uphill legal battle in his defamation lawsuit against In Touch and Life & Style magazines, but if history is any indication, he at least has a chance at coming out on top.

As was reported on Wednesday, Cruise is demanding $50 million from Bauer Publishing Company for tabloid stories suggesting that the divorce-torn actor had abandoned his daughter, Suri. Two stories are at the center of the complaint: A July 30 issue of Life & Style, which featured the headline “Suri in Tears, Abandoned by Her Dad,” and an Oct. 1 issue of In Touch, which had the headline “Abandoned by Daddy” over a photo of Suri.

Cruise’s attorney, Bertram Fields, said in the lawsuit that the headlines are malicious and deceptive, and that the stories do not contain facts to back them up.

Cruise’s wife, Katie Holmes, filed for divorce from Cruise in June, and since then the couple’s personal life -- and the personal life of their 6-year-old daughter -- has become constant fodder for entertainment and gossip publications. But Fields said that making false claims about Cruise’s parenting simply goes too far. “To falsely accuse him of abandoning his child crosses the line,” the complaint reads. “Enough is enough.”   

Defamation lawsuits against gossip news outlets hinge upon a well-established legal precedent. In a landmark case in 1981, the comedienne Carol Burnett successfully sued the National Enquirer after it claimed she’d appeared drunk at a restaurant with Henry Kissinger. Although California law protects newspapers from libel action if they print a retraction -- which the Enquirer did -- the court found that the Enquirer did not fit the definition of a “newspaper,” and was therefore not protected by its retraction. Burnett was awarded $1.6 million in damages, but the judgment was lowered to $800,000 upon appeal.

Since that time, many celebrities have gone toe-to-toe with gossip news outlets, but few have been successful in court. For one thing, while a typical tabloid story will come and go, defamation cases can drag on for years, costing millions of dollars in legal fees. Most celebrities find it easier to grow a thick skin and turn the other cheek.

Perhaps even more difficult are the legal hurdles. Celebrities who want to win a defamation suit have to prove “actual malice,” a legal condition established in the 1964 landmark case between the New York Times and L. B. Sullivan -- a Montgomery, Ala., public safety commissioner who sued the newspaper for running an advertisement that criticized the city’s handling of civil rights demonstrators. That means Cruise will have to prove, unequivocally, that the gossip magazines in question knowingly published false claims regarding his abandonment.    

Still, a successful defamation case against a tabloid is not unheard of, and in the past, libel law has even proven friendly to Cruise’s ex. In 2011, Holmes slapped Star magazine publisher American Media with a $50 million lawsuit after the magazine ran a story suggesting she was a drug addict. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and in April of that year, the magazine printed a rare apology:

“In a recent issue of Star, we published headlines about Katie Holmes that could be read to suggest that she was addicted to drugs,” the apology read. “Star apologizes to Ms. Holmes for any misperception and will be making a substantial donation to charity on Ms. Holmes' behalf for any harm that we may have caused.”

In a world weary of unprincipled magazines that publish nude photos of British royalty, Tom Cruise might just find that the court’s sympathies side with a fading movie star who has been accused of the high crime of poor parenting. It would be a rare win, but it would send a message to tabloid publishers: Leave the kids out of it. 

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