By Stacy Jenel Smith
On May 12, a Superior Court judge refused to dismiss a civil suit filed by the parents of a teenage girl who was allegedly raped at Nick Nolte's house in Malibu in 2004 - despite Nolte's protestations that he was being sued because of his "star power" and "deep pockets." The suit is slated to go to trial June 12.
The plaintiffs claim that Nolte's son Brawley threw a party while his parents weren't at home and schemed to give the victim the date-rape drug GHB - and says the Nolte house has a history of furnishing drugs and/or alcohol to minors. Though Brawley wasn't criminally charged, his friend, Nicholas Woodring, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of having sex with a minor and was sentenced to six months in prison.
Sounds bad. But...
It should be remembered that whether the suit has any merit is far from being decided. Either way, from now on when stories are written about Brawley, who turns 20 June 20, you can bet this claim against him will be included.
Stars and their representatives have complained for years that accusations against the famed and their families get huge media play -- but when cases are thrown out of court or dropped, there is barely any coverage. There's validity to that claim.
It is one of the dark sides of fame that celebrities are targets for attempts at legal money grabs and vendettas by people in their lives, people they barely know -- or sometimes, people they've never even met. When such attempts involve sex and the proverbial he said/she said, the potential for injustice grows exponentially for those who are innocent - yet have to endure high-cost legal battles and negative press that can cause real harm to careers and lives.
Consider the case of Wesley Snipes and his paternity battle with Lanise Pettis, who alleged in 2002 that she'd had sex with the "Blade" star in a Chicago crack house, and that he was the father of her three-year-old son. At one point, a New York Family Court issued a warrant against him for refusing to submit to a DNA test. Snipes filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2004, in which he stated that he'd never met the woman, and alleged she was a "mentally ill former crack addict" who had made wild claims involving celebrities such as Prince, Oprah Winfrey and former President Clinton. Finally, last October, Family Court Judge Mary Bednar dismissed the lawsuit - after another man submitted to DNA testing and proved to be the child's father. Outside the courthouse, Snipes told press: "The good Lord says 'Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.' These are the tenets I live by." But vindicated as he was, Snipes' career momentum took a definite hit while he was occupied with the legal action, and we can only guess the emotional toll.
Consider the case of Michael Flatley. Ireland's "Lord of the Dance" was sued for $35 million in 2003 by a woman who claimed that he had raped her in a Las Vegas hotel room. Flatley's version of events had it that the first he heard of the claim was two months after they'd spent the night together, consensually, when the woman's attorney contacted Flatley's attorney saying she'd tell the public Flatley had raped her if he didn't pay a specified amount. He declined, contacted the FBI to investigate - and filed a $100 million lawsuit against her and her lawyer. Flatley's suit alleged that the attorney had committed extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, fraud, and wrongful interference with business relations.
Flatley's attorney, famed celebrity rep Burt Fields, explained: "We filed the lawsuit because what this lady did was outrageous...It will do tremendous damage to Mr. Flatley. Even when he wins the case, some people will still believe the accusations."
The case against Flatley was eventually thrown out (while a motion to dismiss his countersuit was denied), but that event was barely a blip on the media radar - until last summer, when DNA tests showed that Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had fathered the two-month-old baby of Tyna Marie Robertson.
Robertson is the same woman who sued Flatley.
The information came to light that Robertson had dated other wealthy and well-known men through the years - relationships that sometimes ended in litigation - through private investigator Ernie Rizzo, who noted that he worked for Urlacher and Flatley.
Obviously, sometimes accusations of sexual misconduct against celebrities are true - and there are also certainly instances of guilty parties who never suffer any consequences. Those wrongs don't make the injustice of the above circumstances any less clear, however. It's also true that when there is a media and/or public predisposition against a controversial celebrity, it's all the more likely that the person will be presumed guilty when he gets into trouble.
There was, for instance, glee in many quarters when blustery FOX personality Bill O'Reilly was sued for sexual harassment by producer Andrea Mackris. He eventually settled in the oh-so-titillating, high-profile case - which came complete with lurid details of phone sex and far-out fantasies -- telling viewers he was doing what was best for his family. The deal likely involved payment of millions of dollars to Mackris, noted the Washington Post, "since the two sides were discussing an offer of well over $2 million when negotiations broke down" earlier.
"It is hard for one to view such a transfer of wealth as anything but a result of meretricious greed and a grossly wrongful failing of our legal system," wrote ADASTRO Inc. CEO Cliff Kurtzman regarding the O'Reilly matter, in a paper about the impact on business branding of celebrities accused of wrongdoing.
Kurtzman also noted that when a celebrity is "facing allegations of a sexual nature, people often tend to mentally presume one is guilty until proven innocent (and sometimes even after one is proven innocent). The jury can make errors in deciding who is really telling the truth. This is why, in addition to the embarrassing publicity and the time commitments, many celebrities choose to settle nuisance lawsuits rather than allow them to go to court. It takes a lot of courage on behalf of the accused to stand up for their rights and try to prove their innocence."