(CN) – A federal judge in Manhattan refused to dismiss libel claims against the author of the bestselling book “Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith’s Death” for her statements about Smith’s former lawyer, Howard K. Stern. The same claims against the publisher were dismissed.
Stern claimed that author Rita Cosby and Hachette Book Group defamed him in the book about the untimely death of Smith, a Playboy Playmate and model who at the age of 26 married 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall III.
Smith remained in the tabloids through her estate battle with Marshall’s children, a reality TV show, her romantic exploits with men and, eventually, her death in 2007.
She died of a prescription drug overdose on Feb. 8 at a hotel in Florida.
In March 2009, the Los Angeles district attorney charged Stern with conspiring with Smith’s doctors to keep her hopped up on drugs, despite knowing Smith was hooked. The California Attorney General referred to Stern in a press conference as Smith’s “principal enabler.”
Cosby’s Web site touts “Blonde Ambition” as “the definitive journalistic account of the Anna Nicole Smith saga – with unearthed secrets and explosive, never-before-told information.”
“Perhaps too explosive,” U.S. District Judge Denny Chin wrote.
The book, released in September 2007, allegedly libeled Stern by stating or implying, among other things, that he had sex with Larry Birkhead, the father of Smith’s daughter; that he “pimped” Smith to as many as 50 men a year; and that he played a role in Smith’s death.
Defending the statements, Cosby and Hachette said Stern is essentially “libel-proof,” because his reputation has already been shot. They also claimed that the revelations, particularly about Stern and Birkhead, aren’t defamatory, as homosexuality no longer carries the stigma it once did. And they argued that Stern failed to provide evidence of actual malice.
In a 56-page ruling, Judge Chin said it appeared that Cosby included some of the statements – no matter how outrageous – to achieve an instant bestseller and to seal the deal with Hachette, which “was not interested in publishing the book unless it contained previously unreported information.”
However, Chin agreed with Cosby that the statements about Birkhead and Stern aren’t defamatory simply because they impute homosexuality to Stern, though they could have a defamatory meaning. That’s up for a jury to decide, Chin said.
Turning to the issue of actual malice, Chin said the evidence doesn’t speak well for Cosby. “[T]wo of Cosby’s sources accuse her of trying to get them to say untrue things, and two deny what she attributed to them entirely,” he wrote. “Cosby also relied on sources who were obviously biased against Stern, and the record also contains evidence that Cosby tried to bribe two other sources.
Chin said the evidence of actual malice was enough to take to a jury, at least for some of the statements, but added that there wasn’t enough evidence of actual malice against Hachette.
Chin dismissed the case against Hachette and ruled for Stern on 11 of the 19 allegedly defamatory statements.
The judge scheduled the pre-trial conference for Sept. 11.