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Tom Cruise lawsuit could make private life public

By suing a magazine, the actor runs the risk of turning his very private life into an open book

Tom Cruise with his daughter Suri
Image Credit: Reuters
This July 17, 2012 file photo shows actor Tom Cruise carrying his daughter Suri into the Chelsea Piers sports facility in New York.

It can be true in medicine and Tom Cruise may find it’s true in law: Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease.

The Top Gun and Mission: Impossible star filed a $50 million (Dh183.6 million) defamation lawsuit last Wednesday against the publishers of Life & Style Weekly and In Touch magazines for twice alleging the actor had “abandoned” his daughter Suri.

But as people familiar with litigation know, Cruise runs the risk of turning his private life into a very open book.

To prove that the tabloid’s allegations were false and defamatory, Cruise may have to answer any number of questions, under oath, about himself and his parenting. He might even be asked about his past relationship with ex-wife Nicole Kidman and the children from that marriage, as well as his religious beliefs, according to libel and defamation lawyers not involved in the case.

“Plaintiffs who initiate actions like this have to go in with their eyes wide open because it may not be a very pleasant experience,” said Charles L. Babcock, a Houston attorney who specializes in defending media companies in 1st Amendment cases.

Cruise earlier this year narrowly avoided seeing a court case open a window into his marriage. When Katie Holmes filed for divorce in June, their split had the potential to expose the couple’s finances, their pre-nuptial agreement and their custody arrangements, among other things. But the couple settled the split privately, with no paper trail.

A source with knowledge of the case said at the time that the settlement was made so that none of the terms would be contained in publicly available documents, a practice that is fairly common in such cases. As part of their defence in the new defamation case, lawyers for the magazine can (and doubtlessly will) seek to depose Cruise, and in addition to his live questioning under penalty of perjury could also ask to depose ex-wife Holmes, who is six-year-old Suri’s mother.

What’s more, Cruise and Holmes could be asked to produce documents and answer written questions, called interrogatories, about Cruise’s relationship with his daughter and how much time they spent together, the lawyers said. “What a suit of this type opens up is the entirety of the relationship between Cruise and Suri,” said Donald Zachary, a veteran Los Angeles media lawyer.

“They can go into every visit he’s ever had with her.”

But Cruise could also seek information from the magazines to prove they knowingly published false information about him and his daughter. The magazine, which has declined to comment on the litigation, could also file a motion against Cruise, claiming that his lawsuit seeks to muzzle free speech. Known as an anti-SLAAP motion, the tactic has been used against people such as Barbra Streisand, who unsuccessfully sued the California Coastal Records Project for invading her privacy by publishing an aerial photo of her Malibu home.

Plaintiffs who lose anti-SLAAP motions can be forced to pay the defendants’ legal expenses. In filing his suit, Cruise lawyer Bert Fields issued a statement saying, “Tom is a caring father who dearly loves Suri. To say he has ‘abandoned’ her is a vicious lie. To say it in lurid headlines with a tearful picture of Suri is reprehensible.”

To prove that the articles or headlines were in fact defamatory, or to show that the publications are liable for what’s known as “false light invasion of privacy,” Fields must show that they not only were false but also caused harm to Cruise’s profession or his reputation.

And that could create another legal thicket for Cruise, the lawyers said. “There’s a real question about whether saying he has abandoned his child really hurts his reputation,” Zachary said.

“If the question becomes, ‘Does this hurt his reputation?,’ that could open him up to very embarrassing questions about what his reputation really is.” Those queries could include a look into his controversial membership in the Church of Scientology.

Babcock added that if Cruise were to argue that the stories and headlines caused him mental anguish, the actor’s medical records could become part of the case, and the defence lawyers could even order their own medical examination of Cruise.

The suit was filed in US District Court in Los Angeles. At issue is Life & Style’s July 30 cover, which had the headline, “Suri in Tears, Abandoned by Her Dad,” accompanied by a picture of the girl crying. “...[D]efendants have demonstrated that they have no interest in the truth, and will stop at nothing to push the sales of their tabloids, even if this means exploiting a defenceless six -year-old child on their cover,” the lawsuit, alleging defamation and false light invasion of privacy, says.

“They are wholly unconcerned about the truth of what they publish or the harm it causes. Indeed, the more hurt and embarrassment they falsely and maliciously cause their victims, the more money they make.”

“Tom doesn’t go around suing people,” Fields said in the statement.

“He’s not a litigious guy. But when these sleaze peddlers try to make money with disgusting lies about his relationship with his child, you bet he’s going to sue.”

Fields, who had sent Life & Style and In Touch two letters prior to the litigation asking the magazines to immediately retract the articles at issue, did not respond immediately to comment further.

If Cruise wins the lawsuit, Fields has promised, the money would be donated to charity.

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